Farmers addicted to cheap illegal immigrant labor are facing disruptions, but not devastation, as they adjust to world with fewer unauthorized workers, according to a new report Thursday.
The Migration Policy Institute found that farms are plugging gaps by using machines, enticing workers to stay by offering health care — and are even tapping legal guest workers to fill empty jobs.
Its analysis said warnings from immigrant-rights advocates of food shortages have not generally come to pass. The agriculture industry, it says, has seen an upheaval as farmers shift strategies to try to deal with the evolving labor force.
Mechanization — either as a replacement or as assistance to current workers — is growing, as is better treatment of migrants in the hopes that they’ll stick around. Indeed, the days of field workers ranging from farm to farm with each seasonal crop are over, and farms are making a push to keep their workforce stable and in place through better conditions and bonuses.
“In response to the dwindling arrival of newcomers from Mexico, farm employers are increasingly pursuing four strategies to meet their labor needs: satisfy, stretch, substitute and supplement,” Philip Martin, an agriculture professor at the University of California, Davis, said in the report.
The farm industry could be the tip of the iceberg as President Trump proposes bigger changes to legal immigration, suggesting future flows be cut in half by trimming family-based migration and imposing a new point system to better select those who earn work-based green cards.
That proposal has sparked fierce pushback from immigrant-rights groups who say the U.S. economy needs to have a steady stream of newcomers if it’s to grow as fast as projected, and who argue American workers won’t suffer from the competition.
The National Immigration Forum and National Foundation for American Policy released a report Thursday saying the new proposal, enshrined in a bill known as the RAISE Act, would deliver leave the economy growing at 88 percent of what it would otherwise.
A major target of immigration groups is the RAISE Act’s point system, which would reward would-be immigrants who can already show proficiency in English, who bring skills the government deems important, and who can prove financial independence and won’t require government handouts.
Point systems are used in other industrialized economies such as Canada or Australia, but Stuart Anderson, executive director of the NFAP, said it won’t translate to the U.S. because the American system — split between Congress and a president — can’t adjust quickly enough to economic changes.
Mr. Anderson also said new immigrants today already have rising education levels.
“Both immigrants and their children are now more likely to graduate college than native born,” he said.
That’s true, said Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration limits, but it doesn’t mean those immigrants are doing better. When measured by incomes, poverty rates, welfare use and other basic yardsticks, immigrants still lag behind, despite better education.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” said Mr. Camarota. “For whatever reason, they just aren’t doing any better.”
He said the failure of higher education rates to improve the lot of immigrants could actually be seen as a reason to embrace the RAISE Act, because it would select for specific skills.
One area of the economy where changes are already underway is agriculture, where migrants — and illegal immigrants in particular — have provided the backbone of the workforce.
Yet a significant drop in the rate of new illegal immigrants — from 55 percent in 2000 to 47 percent in 2014 — has forced adjustments, the Migration Policy Institute said.
“As a result, the hired farm workforce is aging and settling into life in the United States, where many workers now live with families that include U.S.-born children,” wrote Mr. Martin, the MPI report author.
Farmers’ adaptation strategies vary.
Some farmers are working to keep crop pickers happy and in place by improving work conditions and in some cases offering bonuses or even health care.
Making workers more efficient — and keeping them healthier, and thus able to work at an older age — means investing in hydraulic lifts instead of ladders, and conveyor belts to move produce so workers don’t have to schlep bags and crates.
Farms are also looking to substitute legal foreign guest-workers for the cheap illegal labor they used to count on, resulting in a surge in the H-2A visa program that focuses on agriculture. The H-2A is rare in that there is no numerical annual cap, and it is allowed to rise along with the need.
One analyst said certifications, which hovered at around 80,000 a decade ago, when illegal Mexican labor was still easy to find, will near 200,000 this year.
While Americans don’t want the jobs, they are competitively sought after by migrants, who will pay intermediaries to try to win spots in the U.S.
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.