Farm Labor Shortages and Immigration Policy


Publication Date: January 2007

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Agriculture, forestry and fishing; Population and demographics



The connection between farm labor and immigration policies is a longstanding one, particularly with regard to U.S. employers' use of workers from Mexico. The Congress is revisiting the issue as it continues debate over initiation of a broad-based guest worker program, increased border enforcement, and employer sanctions to curb the flow of unauthorized workers into the United States.

Two decades ago, the Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA, P.L. 99-603) to reduce illegal entry into the United States by imposing sanctions on employers who knowingly hire individuals who lack permission to work in the country. In addition to a general legalization program, IRCA included legalization programs specific to the agricultural industry that were intended to compensate for the act's expected impact on the farm labor supply and encourage the development of a legal crop workforce. These provisions of the act, however, have not operated in the offsetting manner that was intended, as substantial numbers of unauthorized aliens have continued to join legal farmworkers in performing seasonal agricultural services (SAS).

Currently, a little more than one-half of the SAS workforce is not authorized to hold U.S. jobs. Perishable crop growers contend that their sizable presence implies a shortage of native-born workers willing to undertake seasonal farm jobs. (An increasing share of IRCA-legalized farmworkers have entered the ages of diminished participation in the SAS workforce, as well.) Grower advocates argue that farmers would rather not employ unauthorized workers because doing so puts them at risk of incurring penalties. Farmworker advocates counter that crop growers prefer unauthorized workers because they are in a weak bargaining position with regard to wages and working conditions. If the supply of unauthorized workers were curtailed, it is claimed, farmers could adjust to a smaller workforce by introducing laborefficient technologies and management practices, and by raising wages, which, in turn, would entice more U.S. workers to seek farm employment. Farmers respond that further mechanization would be difficult for some crops, and that substantially higher wages would make the U.S. industry uncompetitive in the world marketplace -- without expanding the legal farm labor force. These remain untested arguments because perishable crop growers have rarely, if ever, operated without unauthorized aliens in their workforces.

Trends in the agricultural labor market generally do not suggest the existence of a nationwide shortage of domestically available farmworkers, in part because the government's databases cover authorized and unauthorized employment. (This finding does not preclude the possibility of spot labor shortages, however.) Farm employment did not show the same upward trend of total U.S. employment during the 1990s expansion. The length of time hired farmworkers are employed has changed little or decreased over the years. Their unemployment rate has varied little and remains well above the U.S. average, and underemployment among farmworkers also remains substantial. These agricultural employees earn about 50 cents for every dollar paid to other employees in the private sector. This report will be updated as warranted.