Migrant Workers: Caught in the Political Crossfire

More often than not, when the term “illegal alien” is used, the image most people associate this with is the undocumented migrant worker. For whatever reason, migrant workers have been cast in a very poor light. Is that fair? Who knows. I do know one thing: the role that migrant workers perform in our economy is vastly misunderstood; and these misperceptions make them easy political targets.

Myth #1:  Foreign Workers Hurt the U.S. Economy

First, it must be pointed out that for every “farm-job” (manual farm laborer), there are two “non-farm jobs” held primarily by U.S. citizens. In other words, migrant workers who work the fields support two others who work in the production, packaging and transporting of the crops; and since the vast majority of the non-farm jobs are held by U.S. citizens, then for each migrant worker deported, two Americans potentially lose their jobs. Consider, too, that when American farmers fail to produce, foreign farmers enjoy a greater market share in the U.S.

Myth #2: Foreign Workers Take Away American Jobs

Second, it is a myth of epic proportions that by deporting undocumented migrant workers, red-blooded Americans will step in to fill their shoes….therefore “creating” jobs. Multiple studies and programs across the United States have proven this hypothesis to be completely false. “Welfare to Work” programs have been initiated in several states over the past three decades in an attempt to fill tens of thousands of positions in the agri-business sector; all with dismal results. Why? As explained by Connie Horner, the owner-operator of an organic blueberry farm in Georgia, in her testimony to the Senate subcommittee: “I was calling three branches of the DOL (Department of Labor) several times a week, begging them for workers. The Americans interested in working wanted only air-conditioned positions and refused to work outside. [As a result,] About 80% of our fruit rotted on the bushes.”

Her story was not unique – many of those who testified provided vivid accounts of the tremendous losses suffered by farms in Georgia and other states that had recently adopted stringent laws regarding the hiring of workers. The migrant workers who left the affected states were not easily replaceable because Americans did not, and do not, want to work as manual laborers…..even though the country is suffering from record unemployment levels. Americans want “high-paying” skilled-labor positions; not back-breaking unskilled manual labor positions.

This fact was famously exposed by John McCain in 2006. Speaking to the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department on April 4 of that year, McCain asserted that immigrants were taking jobs nobody else wanted. As an example, he described the job of an iceberg lettuce picker – who have a four month harvesting season, with 12 hour days, seven days a week. When members of the audience yelled out “pay a decent wage”, McCain responded, “I will personally pay you $50 an hour if you work every day the entire season. You can’t do it, my friends.” Understanding the nature of migrant labor, John McCain has long championed the idea of a “guest-worker” program…..so far to no avail.

A related but often overlooked point is that wages for manual labor (“unskilled” positions) have historically been lower than wages for “skilled” positions. Raising wage rates significantly for unskilled labor would obviously increase the overall cost to the consumer. However, when faced with higher costs for goods produced in the U.S., American consumers would most likely purchase cheaper goods imported from abroad instead of purchasing the more expensive produce grown stateside. It is simply unrealistic to believe that farmers can easily pass on the added cost of higher wages to consumers. As one witness eloquently stated, “Immigrants will be picking the crops that we eat in America…the question is, will they be picking them in America or in foreign countries?”  The reality is that the commodities markets put downward pressure on wages, and for the American farmer to remain competitive, there has to be an adequate labor pool. This is where the migrant worker comes in.

Myth #3: The U.S. Welcomes “Legal” Immigrants

This leads us to the third myth that migrant workers can “stand in line like everyone else!” Well, what “line” are “they” referring to? Ellis Island in New York Harbor, the site of the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station for decades, was closed in 1954 when the United States instituted major immigration reforms and ended “mass” immigration into the country. The fact is, there is no “line” for migrant workers to stand in to obtain visas to work in the U.S. Many Americans mistakenly assume that all an immigrant has to do, in order to legally come to the U.S. to work, is simply “stand in line” at the U.S. consulate in their home country, fill out an application, pay a fee, and wait their turn for a work visa. Our immigration system simply does not work in that manner; instead, employers have the burden of identifying prospective employees abroad and submitting an application for the appropriate visa petition(s) for those employees. Most of the employment-based visas are subject to hard caps set annually by Congress, and many years, the number of visas available for the several categories is woefully insufficient, especially during good economic times.

In an attempt to address the need for workers in the agricultural sector, the “H-2A” (Temporary Worker Performing Agricultural Services Unavailable in the United States) program was created without a hard cap. While well-intentioned, the program has been an abject failure. In very basic terms, the H-2A program works like this:

  • a farmer tries to recruit local labor (U.S. citizens and residents permitted to work);
  • if unsuccessful, he applies for a labor certification from the DOL to identify and recruit immigrant workers at a stated hourly rate;
  • if approved, the farmer identifies the worker(s) and submits an application for each worker to the USCIS for an H-2A visa petition along with the approved labor certification;
  • for each petition approved, a [visa] notice is sent to the farmer who then forwards it to the migrant worker;
  • the migrant worker then takes the notice to the U.S. Embassy in their home country and applies for the specific visa approved in the notice;
  • once the visa is issued, the migrant worker is inspected at the border, and assuming that everything is in order, the visa is stamped and the migrant worker is allowed to enter the U.S. and proceed to the job-site; and
  • upon completing the approved job (i.e. the harvest), the migrant worker immediately exits the United States.

The fees for each H-2A visa exceed $1,500.00, and the paperwork is cumbersome and time-consuming, to say the least. If the migrant worker is rejected at the border, or is terminated by the farmer due to poor performance, the farmer cannot recover the money spent to obtain the visa for that employee. Because the H-2A process is expensive, paper intensive and time consuming (not to mention nonsensical), only 2% to 3% of farm jobs are filled by H-2A visa holders. Farmers across the board have stated emphatically that they want a legal, and reliable, workforce – unfortunately for them, the system is broken.

The real problem with the system is this:  migrant workers do not come to the U.S. to work only one job and then leave; they work several jobs harvesting different crops that mature at different times. In other words, migrant workers move from farm to farm as each crop matures and is ready to be harvested. Most crops have harvesting periods that last 4 to 6 weeks, and most migrant workers will harvest 3 to 5 crops over a 4 to 6 month period. The H-2A program simply does not provide the flexibility needed to allow migrant workers to migrate from job to job. And, as stated above, there is currently no visa available which would allow migrant workers to enter the country legally, let alone find and perform work as a migrant laborer.


What is the solution? Most everybody who works in immigration agrees that the United States needs to overhaul its immigration laws and systems; but, I believe this is too daunting a task to do in one fell swoop. It would make more sense to split up the reforms into four tranches:

  • Address all employment-related visas first; this is the most complicated, and considering the state of the U.S. economy, is vitally important for a number of industries.
  • Next, family-based visas should be addressed; the current system is archaic and, in some cases, draconian.
  • The third step would be to address the remaining immigrants that do not fall within the employment-based or family-based categories.
  • Finally, incorporate all three prior tranches into one comprehensive system.  Basically, put the system back together again by standardizing certain protocols and working out the bugs that have been identified since the “new” systems were put in place.

What is the biggest obstacle? Simply put, the biggest impediment to immigration reform is the politics involved. Ideally, congressmen and women from both sides of the aisle would step up and “de-politicize” the issues at hand and work in earnest to address these difficult but important matters. Realistically, it is highly unlikely that any kind of meaningful reforms will take place until after the 2018 general election, and this spells disaster for a number of industries, most especially the agricultural industry.