An Inquiry into the Value of Foreign-Born Workers in the Agricultural Sector

by Tanner D’Ortenzio

How much do you spend on a pound of strawberries? Or a gallon of whole milk? Most Americans spend on average $0.99 for a pound of conventional strawberries and $3.27 for a gallon of conventional whole milk. Now, imagine for a moment that our government decided to pass large scale agricultural labor reform focused solely on illegal immigration. This would cause our food prices to raise “over five years by an additional 5 percent to 6 percent and would cut the nation’s food and fiber production by as much as a staggering $60 billion.” (Newsroom) Why is that important? Simply put, our nation heavily relies on the cheap labor supplied by the steadily increasing flow of illegal immigrants. Regardless of your stance on illegal immigration, we need cheap agricultural workers. Our economy demands a continuous, almost instantaneous influx of commodities, especially fruit. In 2017 alone, Americans consumed a staggering 116 pounds of fresh fruit per capita.(Statista) Any action taken towards the mass deportation of working illegal immigrants would result in catastrophic damage to not only the lives of the undocumented workers, but to the thousands of farms and Americans who consume the products they produce.

Senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association Robert Guenther estimates that there are approximately 1.5 to 2.0 million farmworkers currently employed in the United States. (Guenther) He also estimates that out of all of those people, approximately 50 to 70 percent are undocumented. Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Science conducted a survey in 2016 finding that “Since the mid-1990s New York dairy farm employers have relied heavily on Hispanic workers (mostly from Mexico and Guatemala) to fill labor-intensive dairy positions.” (Maloney, et al) Seven out of the ten farms surveyed reported that “Hispanic workers constitute between 50-100 percent of their total workers.” The Texas A&M AgriLife Research group released a study showing that if our government enacted any program that would reduce the total amount of foreign-born workers by 50 percent, milk prices would rise by 30 percent, milk production would drop, and 3500 American dairy farms could go out of business.

A possible solution commonly proposed by more nationalist-minded Americans would be for the 5,768,000 unemployed Americans over the age of 20 to take these open jobs. This seems almost intuitive; less foreign-born workers should equate to more jobs and more money in the pockets of Americans, right? One of the pillars of the great immigration debate in the United States is the question of if immigrants take jobs away from Americans. A question most people have pondered, and a question that has been satirized on more than one occasion. A report by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Center for Global Development gave a compelling argument through a case study conducted in North Carolina in 2011. The case study sought to show the value foreign-born workers have on the agricultural sector and the lack of willingness to work in these jobs by native-born Americans. The argument is based off four incredibly compelling points:

  1. There is virtually no supply of native manual farm laborers in North Carolina.
  2. No matter how bad the economy becomes, native workers do not take farm jobs.
  3. Foreign farm workers create jobs for American workers.
  4. The North Carolina Growers Association spends more money to comply with the immigration laws designed to protect American workers than it does on salaries for all its American farm workers combined.

In 2011 there were approximately 489,000 unemployed Americans living in North Carolina. In an attempt to cut down on this number, the North Carolina Growers Association posted 6,500 available farm jobs commonly taken by foreign-born workers. Despite the staggering number of unemployed, only 268 people applied, resulting in 245 hires. On the first day of work only 163 people showed, and after one month passed, over half of those 163 Americans quit. Even more shocking was that only seven native farm workers pushed through the entire season. On the other hand, 90 percent of all Mexican-born farm workers hired by the North Carolina Growers Association completed the season. Meaning that “In any given week, native farm workers are 30 times more likely to leave the job than Mexican farm workers.” (Clemens) Because of the lack of native-born farm workers in the United States, foreign-born workers allow these kinds of farms to exist. Without them, these farms would collapse under their own weight. (Clemens) In addition to all of this compelling data, the North Carolina Growers Association spends more money advertising for these positions (approx. over $100,000) than they paid their workers, $87,000 in wages. This is due to the requirements placed on North Carolina farms and other farms across the country to comply with the immigration laws.

Passed in 1986, The Immigration Reform and Control Act targeted the employment of illegal aliens. “Making employment of unauthorized aliens unlawful” (8 USCS § 1324a) While this act is justified in the eyes of congress, myself and many others believe that a new solution must be created that can benefit American farms, foreign-born workers, and the Americans that consume the products they produce. One popular way to tackle agricultural labor reform is to increase the wages of farm-workers from $12.00 to $15.00 dollars an hour. However, that would pass the rising cost onto us, the consumers, potentially raising prices by 2-3 percent. Agricultural economist Philip Martin suggests that if this wage increase would be pushed through, the result would cause farms to “invest in machinery to reduce labor costs… That means smaller farmers, without the economies of scale to support mechanization, are going to have the hardest time.” (Martin) The American Farm Bureau Federation suggests a promising solution:

The best scenario for farm labor reform, both for consumers and farmers, is one that includes immigration enforcement, a redesigned guest worker program, and the opportunity for skilled laborers currently working in agriculture to earn an adjustment of status. Under that scenario, there would be little to no effect on food prices, and the impact on farm income would be less than 1 percent. (AFBF)

​Regardless of where people stand on the political spectrum, it is clear that there needs to be some sort of reform program targeted at keeping these immigrant workers in the United States. These people are providing grocery stores across the country with the cheap, fresh produce that we take for granted. These foreign-born workers are the lifeblood of the American Agricultural Sector. Without them, food would rot in the fields, prices would rise, and Americans would lose their livelihoods.