Production and Poverty Paradox
The San Joaquin Valley is the agricultural powerhouse of the United States and California. California accounts for an eighth of U.S. farm sales, largely because it produces high value fruit and nut, vegetable and melon, and horticultural specialty (FVH) crops such as nursery products and flowers. Over three-fourths of the state's $37 billion in farm sales in 2010 were crop commodities, and almost 90 percent of the $28 billion in California crop sales represented labor-intensive FVH commodities.
About half of California's farm sales and farm employment are produced in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley with four million residents that stretches from Stockton in the north to Bakersfield in the south. The leading U.S. farm county is Fresno, which had farm sales of almost $6 billion in 2010.
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Agriculture and Migration After Arizona
The view a PDF of the report with figures and additional information please click here.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2012 upheld the show-me-your-papers provision of Arizona’s SB 1070 law while reaffirming the federal government’s authority over immigration policy making. The Court, which in May 2011 upheld another Arizona law that required all employers to use the Internet-based E-Verify to check the legal status of new hires, may have opened the door for more states to enact laws to crack down on unauthorized foreigners. There is unlikely to be significant federal legislation immigration legislation in 2012 and perhaps not in 2013–14.
The U.S. Supreme Court accepted one and rejected three major provisions of Arizona’s SB 1070, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, that aimed to push unauthorized foreigners out of the state. Federal courts had issued injunctions to block four key provisions of SB 1070 that:
- required police to verify the immigration status of everyone they encounter whom they reasonably suspect may be unauthorized;
- allowed police to arrest foreigners they believe to have committed deportable offenses;
- made it a state crime for foreigners to fail to carry registration documents;
- made it a state crime for illegal immigrants to seek or perform work in the state.
In its 5-3 decision, the Court reinforced the federal government’s exclusive authority to regulate migration but allowed state and local police to determine the status of persons they “reasonably suspect” are not lawfully in the United States. The Court warned that, if Arizona police implement this provision in ways that lead to racial profiling and civil rights violations, show-me-your-papers could be found unconstitutional.
The Court earlier upheld Arizona’s Legal Arizona Workers Act that has since January 1, 2008 required Arizona employers to submit data provided by newly hired workers to Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) E-Verify system, which checks new hires against social security and immigration databases to determine if they are legally authorized to work. There is no state punishment for employers who fail to enroll in E-Verify, but employers found to have hired unauthorized workers can have their business licenses revoked. An average one Arizona employer a year has had a business license revoked in the law’s first three years; none have been farmers.
DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency, which operates E-Verify, reported that 98.3 percent of the 15.6 million employer new-hire queries submitted in fiscal year 2009–10 (FY10) were confirmed as work-authorized in less than five seconds. The remaining 1.7 percent of queries generated tentative non-confirmations, which prompt employers to inform workers in writing to contact USCIS and clear up discrepancies. About 18 percent or 47,000 employees who contacted USCIS were later confirmed as work-authorized; almost all of the remaining 218,000 employees quit. A major effect of E-Verify is to deter unauthorized foreigners without “good papers” from applying for jobs with employers who use E-Verify.
The Court’s Arizona decisions may encourage more states to enact laws dealing with illegal migration. Five states—Alabama with HB 56, Georgia with HB 87, Indiana with SB 590 and HB 1402, South Carolina with S 20, and Utah with HB 497—have laws similar to Arizona’s SB 1070 (Map 1). Five other states—Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Tennessee—considered immigration control laws in 2012 but did not enact them, awaiting the Court’s decision on Arizona’s law. All federal contractors and 18 states require some or all of their employers to use E- Verify, while California and Illinois enacted legislation that limits the ability of local governments to require employers to use E-Verify.
Farm Employment and Workers
The hired workers who do most of California’s farm work are primarily employed to produce crops, which accounted for almost three-fourths of the state’s $37 billion in farm sales in 2010. Within crops, most hired workers are employed to produce the so-called FVH commodities, fruits and nuts ($13.5 billion in sales in 2010), vegetables and melons ($6.9 billion), and horticultural specialties such as flowers and nursery products ($3.8 billion) that generated almost 90 percent of California’s crop sales and two-thirds of the state’s total farm sales.
California requires all employers with $100 or more in quarterly wages to pay unemployment insurance (UI) taxes on worker earnings. Over the past two decades, UI data show stable average annual agricultural employment (NAICS 11) of just under 400,000, but crop support employment, primarily employees of farm labor contractors, recently surpassed the number of workers hired directly by crop employers (Figure 1).
Average annual employment is a measure of the number of year-round job slots, not the number of farm workers, because of seasonal peaks and worker turnover. For example, agricultural employment averaged 389,500 in 2011, with a peak of 452,800 in June and a second peak of 449,600 in September; the low was 311,700 in January. The employment peak-trough ratio was almost 1.5, meaning that 50 percent more workers were employed in June than in January.
According to Khan et al., an analysis of individual social security numbers (SSNs) reported by agricultural establishments in the 1990s found almost three individuals for each year-round farm job, suggesting 1.1 million unique farm workers. Even though the analysis removed SSNs reported by 50 or more employers in one year and jobs that generated less than $1 or more than $75,000 in quarterly earnings, some observers believe that UI data may exaggerate the number of unique farm workers. If the three-to-one ratio of workers to year-round jobs is correct, there are about 1.1 million farm work- ers; at two-to-one, there are almost 800,000.
For most workers, farm work is a job rather than a career. A conservative estimate is that at least 10 percent of farm workers leave the farm work force each year, so that farmers rely on an influx of new entrants to replace those who leave for nonfarm jobs or return to Mexico. If California has a million unique farm workers, this means 100,000 newcomers are required to replace those who exit; for the 2.5 million unique hired farm workers across the United States, 250,000 newcomers a year are required.
Mexico-U.S. migration has slowed, providing fewer new entrants to replace farm workers who exit. About 10 percent of the people born in Mexico have moved to the United States, some 12 million, and 30 percent of the 40 million foreign-born U.S. residents were born in Mexico, making Mexico the largest source of U.S. immigrants. Mexican-born U.S. residents have spread throughout the United States, but almost 60 percent live in California and Texas.
Between 2005 and 2010, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated zero net Mexico-U.S. migration; that is, almost 1.4 million Mexicans moved to the United States over this five-year period and 1.4 million Mexicans (including 300,000 U.S.-born children) moved to Mexico (Figure 2). Many of those who returned to Mexico were deported, and some took their U.S.-born children with them.
There are still Mexicans moving to the United States, but returns to Mexico outnumbered new Mexican entrants to the United States by four to one in re- cent years. Reasons for the slowdown in Mexico-US migration include high U.S. unemployment, border violence and more fences and agents that raise smuggling costs and risks, and improving conditions in Mexico.
California agriculture is feeling the effects of slowing Mexico-U.S. migration because of its revolving-door labor mar- ket, which relies on newcomers from abroad to replace workers who exit. If Mexico-U.S. migration does not increase with the expected U.S. economic recovery, where will California farmers get replacement farm workers? The answer depends on immigration policy: will currently unauthorized farm workers be legalized and required to continue to work in agriculture or will replacement workers be guest workers from abroad?
H-2A and AgJOBS
The federal government has had an agricultural guest worker program for most of the past century. The current H-2A program certified 7,200 U.S. farmers to fill over 90,000 farm jobs with guest workers in FY11, including 250 California farmers to fill 3,000 farm jobs. The H-2A program requires farm employers to try to recruit U.S. workers under federal and state supervision, offer guest workers free housing, and pay them a super minimum wage called the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) of $10.24 an hour in California in 2012.
California farm employers assert that the H-2A program is too cumbersome and bureaucratic because of the state’s diverse and perishable crops. They urge three major employer-friendly changes. First, employers would like attestation to replace certification, meaning that employers would attest or assert that they tried and failed to recruit U.S. workers while offering appropriate wages, and their attestations would allow them to recruit and employ guest workers. Second, farm employers would like to offer housing vouchers worth $200 to $300 a month instead of free housing, adding $1 to $2 an hour to current wages. Third, to help offset the cost of housing vouchers, the AEWR would be rolled back by $1 or more an hour and studied to determine how well it achieves its goal of protecting U.S. workers from any wage-depressing effects of guest workers.
The Clinton Administration blocked efforts to enact these employer-friendly changes to the H-2A program duringt he 1990s. However, in December 2000, farm employer and worker advocates negotiated the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS), which would legalize currently unauthorized farm workers and make these three employer-friendly changes to the H-2A program. They hoped that Congress would enact AgJOBS in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, but AgJOBS was blocked by those opposed to “amnesty.”
Most farm employers and worker advocates continue to urge enactment of the 12-year old AgJOBS bill. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a version in 2009 that would grant Blue Card temporary legal status to up to 1.35 million unauthorized foreigners who did at least 150 days or 863 hours of farm work in the 24-month period ending December 31, 2008. If Blue Card holders continued to do farm work over the next three to five years, they and their families could become legal immigrants. AgJOBS’s employer-friendly changes to the H-2A program include the Big 3 desired by farm employers: attestation, housing vouchers, and a reduced AEWR.
Farm employers and workers today are in a period of uncertainty. There is unlikely to be any immigration reform that includes earned legalization or amnesty in 2012, and legalization may face continued obstacles in a Republican-controlled House in the next Congress. However, employer-friendly changes to the H-2A program or a new guest worker program could accompany a federal mandate that all employers use E-Verify to check the legal status of newly hired workers. Representatives who favor mandatory E-Verify have proposed new guest worker programs administered by USDA rather than the Department of Labor (DOL) that include attestation, reduced or no housing requirements, and lower minimum wages without legalizing currently un-authorized workers.
California is at another of its periodic farm labor crossroads. Most hired workers are not authorized to work legally in the United States. Avoiding the risk of enforcement by hiring workers via labor contractors and other intermediaries may have reached its limits, as farm employers report increased difficulty recruiting workers directly and note that many contractors are supplying fewer workers than requested. If there were a serious farm labor shortage, the most likely government response would be to roll back H-2A regulations on a short-term emergency basis, perhaps waiving supervised recruitment of U.S. workers and relaxing the free-housing regulations. Some farmers planning for a future of fewer and more expensive workers are developing labor-saving machines and mechanical aids that raise worker productivity, while others are hoping that legalization and easier access to guest workers can maintain the labor status quo.
- 2011: Securer Communities, Safer Neighborhoods? - Immigration Dec 30
- Q&A: Considering Farmworker Health and the Affordable Care Act - Farm Labor Jan 28
- Is President Obama Responsible for Mass Deportation? - Immigration Feb 25
- A Market-Based Approach to Immigration Reform - Immigration Mar 04
- Border Protection Decision May Increase Border Deaths - Immigration Jun 25
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