Urban Wire Immigrants feed America, but lack legal protections
Megan Thompson
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This week marked National Farmers Market Week, which the US Department of Agriculture designated to “highlight the important role farmers markets play in the nation’s food system.” With the White House’s and Senate’s recent focus on immigration policy, it is important to recognize how essential immigrants are to the US food system.

According to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey conducted by the US Department of Labor, immigrants perform 73 percent of all farmwork. Of all farmworkers, undocumented immigrants are estimated to account for 47 percent. Both documented and undocumented immigrant labor play a key role in maintaining current food prices.

But undocumented immigrants employed as agricultural workers have few legal protections, which hurts them and their employers. Although some measures have aimed to change this, a lack of consensus on immigration reform has impeded changes in farmworker policy.

Current immigrant farmworker policies are limited

The H-2A employment-based immigrant visa is the only policy that allows farmworkers to enter the country legally to work on a temporary basis. The H-2A temporary agricultural visa allows foreign-born workers to work temporarily on US farms and is open to an unlimited number of workers. But in 2015, only 284,000 farmworkers received H-2A visas out of the 1.1 million legal farmworkers. Even though the number of available visas for H-2A are unlimited, only a small share of employers uses them to hire workers.

Although the number of H-2A visas issued in the last 20 years has increased dramatically, the visas can create problems for both farmworkers and farmers. Even when foreign-born workers have an H-2A visa, they have little agency in the employment relationship, often leading to unfair labor practices and such conditions as wage theft, human trafficking, uncompensated injury, and unhealthy conditions. The H-2A program is also burdensome on farmers and farm contractors, making it difficult for them to navigate the bureaucratic requirements, costs, and processes to hire foreign-born workers. This creates incentives for them to seek undocumented workers.

An estimated 21 percent of hired farm labor are legal permanent residents, but there are few legal pathways for undocumented foreign-born agricultural workers or those on H-2A visas to get legal permanent residency. It is likely that farmworkers with legal permanent resident status were granted their green cards through other means unattached to their employment as a farmworker.

Even when foreign-born farmworkers legally work in the United States as permanent residents, they are exempt from many Fair Labor Standards Act protections, including minimum wage, overtime pay, workers compensation, and child labor laws. This subjects  farmworkers to harsh working conditions and poverty wages. Farmworkers are also excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which allows workers to organize and form labor unions.

Always proposed, never enacted

Congressional lawmakers have introduced bills to reform the current policies for agricultural workers, but few measures have received enough support to pass. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 aimed to reform immigration policy for low-skilled workers. A few years later, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 sought to reform immigration policy for all immigrants, and it included changes that would have aided legal and undocumented farmworkers, most notably by establishing pathways to permanent residency.

Most recently, the Agricultural Workers Program Act of 2017, introduced in May, would allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the country as farmworkers if they have a work history, and it would create pathways to legal residency and citizenship. This “blue card” would also protect farm employers from civil or criminal investigation and would require them to keep employment records of undocumented workers.

Immigration policy affects the US food system, farmers, and economy

Policies that aim to reduce the number of immigrants in the United States—legal or undocumented, skilled or unskilled—would put even more pressure on farmers who say they are already dealing with labor shortages. These employers have reported that they are struggling to get American citizens to apply for many of their open positions. A study in North Carolina, where 489,000 people are unemployed, revealed that only 268 American citizens applied for 6,500 posted farm jobs.

These policies could have devastating effects on the US food system. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that policies that decrease immigrant farm labor could increase food prices 5 to 6 percent.

So the next time you’re at the farmers market, consider the role immigrants may have played in ensuring you had access to that food.


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Research Areas Immigration
Tags Immigrants and the economy Food deserts and food supply Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center