Migrant Farm Labor

Each year, over three million foreign-born individuals make the decision to leave their homes or pack up their families and belongings and move to the U.S. to plant, cultivate, and harvest agricultural products. Migrant farm workers are usually foreign-born males who leave their homes with hopes of making enough money to support their families, whether their families are traveling alongside them or were left behind in their home country.

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As well, these workers are striving to feed themselves, purchase land and a home, and ultimately return to their homeland. These workers are commonly known to immigrate from Mexico, but also come from countries such as Jamaica, Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Many arrive with solid agricultural skills and a working knowledge of agricultural practices and products. This expertise is accompanied by a strong work ethic and a commitment to provide for their families or make it on their own.

Many also hold pride in the contribution that they make through their labor as they are providing for people all over the world. The pay or supplement that the workers receive often is used for their lone survival or is directed straight to their families back home. However, their pay does not always materialize to the price they envisioned or were promised, which is why U.S. workers do not take the low paying jobs.

In fact, 61 percent of U.S. farm workers’ income falls below the poverty level, receiving a median income of $7,500 a year (Gonzalez, 2015). Then why do they immigrate illegally to take a low paying job? Many factors contribute to the large immigrant farm worker labor pool. Push factors in workers’ countries include economic instability, political uprisings and unsettlement, population growth, and scarce employment opportunities. Pull factors within the United States include the ongoing desire for a low cost labor force to fill jobs no longer attractive to U.S. citizens due to low pay, limited or no benefits, and substandard work conditions. Other pull factors have included federally enacted and administered farm labor programs such as the Bracero Contract Labor Program that recruited workers from Mexico to harvest crops in the Southwestern United States from 1942 to 1964. More recently, larger numbers of Mexican farm workers have moved into other regions of the U.S. through a similar farm labor contract program known as the H-2A agricultural guest worker program enacted by Congress in 1952 and more widely acknowledged when the Bracero program ended in 1964 (Bruno, 2016). These examples of federal programs are legal ways for workers to immigrate and those who do so aren’t part of the migrant labor problem. The issue, though, is that more than half of all farm workers, both U.S. citizens and immigrants, are unauthorized workers with no legal status in the United States. In many ways, farm workers today are forced to leave their countries, just as agricultural workers have been forced to do throughout history.

Commonly, though, the reasons for their migration are directly related to U.S. policies. For example, when the United States and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, government-subsidized corn that was cheaply produced in the U.S. began to flood the market in Mexico (Hertz, 2018). With this new fast of under-priced corn, farmers in Mexico could no longer afford to make a living growing corn. Therefore, millions in Mexico were forced out of their jobs and had no other option but to leave their families and move to the U.S. to look for work. Farm workers do not necessarily by choice, but for survival and the hope of a better life. They endure harsh, extreme conditions to arrive in the U.S. Once in the U.S., not only do the farm workers face major challenges on the job, but thanks to our current anti-immigrant political climate, they are also singled out and even criminalized in their own communities. For example, although immigration policy is determined at the federal level, states and local areas are beginning to increasingly pass legislation that imposes criminal penalties on undocumented immigrants.

In most states already, undocumented farm workers and immigrants lack basic rights such as obtaining a driver’s license or getting a higher education. As well, though, more and more anti-immigrant laws are being passed at the state level such as Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona and recent House Bill 56 in Alabama, which are further marginalizing an already deprived population (Hertz, 2018). Further examples of extreme conditions in the workplace are through the bullying and abuse of workers. On the job, the workers’ illegal status makes them especially vulnerable to abuse as some employers and supervisors constantly remind the workers of deportation. For example, if an employer or supervisor is treating a worker unfairly, a worker who speaks up can be threatened with punishment or deportation. This significantly takes away their rights and strongly discourages them to stand up for themselves and advocate for their working conditions. As well, the threats of punishment and deportation add to the psychological stress of a job that is already unstable. Many of these undocumented farm workers would like to change their immigration status and obtain citizenship, but becoming a citizen is almost impossible. With the current structure of the legal system, the only ways to get permanent residency in the U.S. are through a family connection, through an employer sponsorship, or through extraordinary medical or psychological circumstances.

However, without family in the U.S., it’s nearly impossible. If our immigration system isn’t rebuilt, farm workers will continue to be abused, our multi-billion dollar agricultural industry will lack a stable workforce, and the safety of the nation’s food supply will overall be in jeopardy. Overall, though, the issue continues to begin with the legal statuses of these workers. A National Agricultural Workers Survey conducted in 2015 found that 52 of every 100 farm workers are undocumented and illegal (Gonzalez, 2015).

This high percentage of foreign-born workers is nothing new, though. Throughout the history of the United States, people from other countries have been brought over to work in our fields. Many came against their will while others came on work trade programs. For example, white laborers were brought over from Europe as indentured servants in the 1600s, and Africans worked in the fields after being forced onto slave ships from the 1600s to the 1800s. Two decades ago, the Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) to reduce illegal entry into the United States by imposing sanctions on employers who knowingly hire people who lack permission to work in our country. In addition to a general legalization program, IRCA created programs specific to just the agricultural industry that were intended to compensate for the act’s impact on the farm labor supply and encourage development of a U.S. workforce. These programs have so far not operated in the manner that was intended. Instead, substantial numbers of unauthorized aliens have continued to join legal farm workers in performing seasonal agricultural services. A little more than one-half of the temporary agricultural workforce is not authorized to hold U.S. jobs, which causes problems for both the employers and the workers. Crop growers say that their worker presence lacks a large percentage of native-born farm workers. Grower advocates such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Food and Drug Administration Worker Regulations Division (NFDA) argue that farmers should not want to employ unauthorized workers because doing so puts them at risk of incurring penalties such as fines or license suspensions as well as potential loss in production and sales if their operation is shutdown. Farm worker advocates say that crop growers and farm owners prefer unauthorized workers because the workers are in a weak position and therefore will take lesser wages and harder jobs that U.S. workers generally do not want. If the supply of unauthorized workers were reduced, it is claimed that farmers could adjust to a smaller workforce by introducing labor-efficient technologies and management practices, and by raising wages, which, in turn, would entice more U.S. workers to accept farm jobs (Gonzalez, 2015). Growers and farm owners respond that further mechanization would be difficult for some crops, and that much higher wages would make the U.S. industry uncompetitive in world markets without expanding the legal farm workforce. These remain untested arguments because perishable crop growers have rarely, if ever, operated without unauthorized foreign workers. Overall, there are alternatives to employing migrant workers and breaking regulations, but growers and farm owners just want an easy way out.

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