Why Do Farmers Get Their Own Immigration Deal?

Five reasons agriculture gets a special place in immigration reform.

ByABC News
February 3, 2013, 2:30 PM

Feb. 4, 2013— -- The bipartisan group of senators working on an immigration reform bill haven't decided how to handle the broad swath of workers who come to the U.S. to perform manual labor. The Senate framework talks about creating "an improved process for admitting future workers" but doesn't commit to a guest worker program specifically.

The framework does, however, make it clear that the immigration bill will contain a special guest-worker program for agricultural and dairy workers (who are mostly immigrants, except when portrayed in Super Bowl commercials). In addition, undocumented farm workers who are here already would get an expedited path to citizenship.

See Also: Future Immigration Is the Hard Part

So why do farmers get a special deal, when immigrant workers also fill manual labor jobs in industries like construction, healthcare and hospitality?

Here are few of the reasons:

1. Farm Labor Is Hard and Generally Pays Little

When a Colorado farmer tried to hire some locals to work on his farm harvesting onions in October 2011, he thought the poor economy would have Americans snatching up the chance at a job. His first crop of local workers quit after six hours, according to The New York Times.

"Some simply never came back and gave no reason," the Times reported. "Twenty-five of them said specifically, according to farm records, that the work was too hard."

Farm work is one of the most physically grueling jobs out there. The average worker earns $10 per hour and about $10,000 a year, according to Philip Martin, a professor at University of California, Davis with an expertise in immigration and farm labor. Some workers need to move from one farm to another, following the harvests to cobble together a living.

Since the 1960s, Mexican immigrants have taken the place of American workers in the fields, with just a third of present-day farm workers born in the U.S. Of the roughly 2.5 million farm workers hired each year, more than half are undocumented, according to the Department of Labor. Growers put the number closer to 70 percent.

"We don't have access to a domestic labor force," said Kristi Boswell, the director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Our jobs are in rural areas, they're seasonal and temporary in nature."

"Also, frankly, it's very hard work," she said. "It's out in the elements, hand labor."

2. Farmers Already Have a Guest Worker Program, But No One Uses It

The idea of creating a guest-worker program for the agricultural sector may be less controversial than for other sectors because one already exists. The H-2A visa is meant to supply foreign-born agriculture workers to farmers who can't find workers born in the U.S.

Unlike some other visa programs, there's no limit on the number of visas that can be given out. However, farmers only use the H-2A visa to hire 2 percent of their workforce. That's 55,000 workers out of roughly 2.5 million. Kristi Boswell, the director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that the red tape associated with the program discourages farmers from using it.

"The H-2A program is used by growers out of necessity only," she said. "It's a very burdensome process to even apply to the program." Boswell said that the visa requires extensive recruiting and makes growers provide housing for the workers, an added expense that can be problematic in some areas because of zoning restrictions.

Farmers want a guest-worker program with fewer stipulations, including the ability to hire on a contract or at will. That brings us to our next point.

3. Farmers and Unions Are Playing Ball -- for Now

One of the big changes in a new guest-worker program would be the ability to hire and fire workers at will.