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July 2014 Issue of Wines & Vines

Labor Decline at Odds With Immigration Reform

by Andrew Adams
Mexico labor decline
The number of farm laborers in Mexico declined by nearly 2 million between 1995 and 2010. Photo: Agricultural and Resource Economics Update

San Rafael, Calif.—With mid-term elections looming in November, advocates for immigration reform are hoping that the U.S. House of Representatives can reach an agreement on legislation this summer. An expert in agricultural economics, however, contends any immigration reform law would be a short-term measure that can’t change one simple but important reality: There are fewer immigrants seeking farm work in the United States.

Last year the U.S. Senate approved its own immigration reform bill (SB 744), but immigration reform stalled in the House.

Jason Resnick is the vice president and general counsel of Western Growers, a trade association that represents fruit and vegetable farmers throughout the western United States and has been a strong advocate for immigration reform.

Speaking to Wines & Vines in early June, Resnick said he and the group’s board members had just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where they met with two-dozen senior members of the House of Representatives. He said there was some acknowledgment by Republican leaders that approving the bill would be good for their supporters in agriculture and the economy in general.

If reform is going to happen this year, a law will need to be passed this summer, before lawmakers adjourn for the August recess and before the election season in the fall puts pressure on Republicans to appease constituents opposed to immigration reform. “We think that’s really a critical time to move immigration,” Resnick said. “If it’s going to happen this year, it has to happen this summer.”

Resnick said his group would like to see an efficient visa program for foreign farm workers and a path toward legal status for workers already in the country illegally. He said to earn legal status, workers should have to pay a fine, prove they are current with their tax obligations and go through an application process. “Many of those workers, those existing workers, are some of the most important employees on our farms,” he said. “They’ve become supervisors and foremen and really critical employees—and not only on the farm but important members of the community.”

Changing immigration laws in the United States will help, argues J. Edward Taylor, a professor at the University of California, Davis, and director of Rural Economics of the Americas and Pacific Rim, but it cannot change the reality that the immigrant labor pool is essentially drying up. “The immigration debate in Washington, D.C., as it pertains to agriculture, continues to assume that immigration is the solution to the U.S. farm labor problem,” he said. “Our work strongly suggests that immigration reforms offer farmers a short-term, stopgap solution, at best.”

Mexico’s farm workforce declined by nearly 2 million people between 1995 and 2010, meanwhile average incomes steadily increased, birth rates decreased, and rural residents gained better access to education. As Mexico becomes more affluent and better educated, its residents are leaving farm work at home and abroad. Far fewer (if any) Mexicans aspire to be seasonal farm workers in the United States, according to Taylor’s research.

Taylor notes that the trend of people leaving farm labor as per-capita income increases is seen in all countries over time. This shift happened in the United States during the mid-1900s, and Mexico was there to fill the need for farm workers. Mexico also is exporting more food to the United States, placing more demand on the country’s decreasing supply of farm workers. “In fact, Mexico now imports farm workers from Guatemala. It is in a transition phase of being both an exporter and importer of farm labor,” Taylor says.

He argues that while Mexico can import some of its needed labor from Guatemala and other Central American nations, the shift away from farm labor is happening even more quickly in those smaller economies. Instead of finding the next Mexico, or another source of affordable foreign labor, U.S. farms will have to become as efficient as possible with fewer workers by investing in new machinery or transitioning to less labor-intensive crops.

He said the wine and grape industries are already a few steps ahead because growers have become more open to technology. “In California, wine grape production has mechanized quite a bit, which is good news,” Taylor said.

Resnick agreed there are fewer available workers because the Mexican farm labor supply is declining, but he said such a decline is happening slowly and is a “10-year-plus proposition.”

Rayne Pegg, manager of federal policy for the California Farm Bureau, said the bureau is actively pushing for the House to pass some type of bill this summer in the hope that both Houses of Congress have legislation for conference.

She said growers throughout California and the nation are grappling with a lack of labor, and that is the result of many forces including demographic changes in Mexico. Even if there are fewer workers coming from Mexico, Pegg said the laws would need to be changed so the demand for workers could be filled from other countries in Central and South America. “America’s labor policies have to change regardless of where that labor is coming from,” she said. “Our system right now is just encouraging an underground economy.”

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