Will Immigration Reform Help Immigrant Farm Workers?

Farmers want guaranteed labor, but worker rights need to be protected.

ByABC News
May 15, 2013, 1:49 PM

May 15, 2013— -- Farm jobs. The pay is usually low and the work is grueling.

That's why no one should be surprised by a study released on Wednesday looking at immigration and agriculture in North Carolina.

The upshot: Almost no U.S.-born workers are taking farm jobs in that state. And even during the recession, native workers weren't more likely to seek employment in agriculture.

That means that growers need an easy-to-use guest worker program that will give them access to immigrant guest workers with too much expense or red tape. That's the recommendation of the report, which was drafted by two pro-immigration reform groups, the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Center for Global Development.

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Growers already have a guest-worker program, and there's no cap on the number of workers they can bring in. But the requirements are too strenuous, so businesses opt for undocumented workers, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest grower association in the country.

Of course, you might wonder why farmers won't just be able to keep the immigrant workers they have now.

That's because immigration reform could shake up the industry.

A reform bill being considered in the Senate would offer legal status to undocumented farm workers who are in the country now. They could become legal permanent residents in five to seven years, if they keep working in agriculture during that time.

However, the assumption is that once those workers are able to leave the fields, they will.

So it's not so much that immigrant workers are better fieldhands or more excited about the job (although they might be), it's that working in agriculture is the only choice they have. And once they have another choice, the expectation is that they'll leave.

There's no question -- fieldwork is one of the toughest jobs out there. And giving growers a continuous supply of cheap labor won't necessarily change that.

But immigration reform would improve conditions for workers going forward, if growers really do use the new guest worker program.

The biggest difference for most workers is that they will now be in the country legally. That should help them to advocate for fair wages and working conditions.

Also, future guest workers wouldn't be tied to a single employer. They would need to work in agriculture, but they could move from one employer to another.

Another big change will be the possibility for citizenship. The Senate immigration reform bill would allow future guest workers in agriculture to become legal permanent residents through most of the same pathways available to other immigrants.

It's unclear how much competition there will be for those visas, but it would be better than the current options for temporary farm workers. Right now, there is no way for them to become permanent residents.

So while immigration reform would give growers what they want -- a steady supply of cheap, captive labor -- it should also improve the conditions for workers. And that could transform the dynamics of the industry in the years ahead.