The True Role of Migrant Workers

Growing up on a cotton farm in the Texas Panhandle, my family directly benefits from the work of migrant farm workers. We rely on the support of farm workers year-round from plant to harvest, and with much uncertainty in immigration reform, my family has a lot to lose.

In my youth, I didn’t recognize the need of migrant workers and the role they play in the agricultural industry. My father has always said people here aren’t willing to do the work, and as a student studying agricultural communications, I’ve found this to be true.

Immigration is always a hot-button issue in politics, but today, immigration reform seems to be even more prevalent. Why is this? Aren’t migrant workers providing a service to the farmer, therefore the industry? Many farmers would cease their operation if there were no migrant laborers filling jobs during busy seasons. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor certified 165,741 H-2A jobs in 2016. Click here for the FY 2016 annual report.

Let’s take a look at what migrant workers truly mean for the American farmer.

Montgomery_farmworker
Workers pick strawberries on a farm in California.  Source: John Henry Gremmer

“Migrant workers only benefit their home countries.”
False

Yes, a driving force of migrant workers in the United States is to send their earnings back to their families at home, but they also serve a purpose here. Migrant workers become active members of their communities, spending their income on housing, transportation, food, entertainment and more. Although it is common for them to send some support to family abroad, migrant workers help stimulate the American economy.

“Migrant workers are all criminals.” ­
False

Contrary to popular belief, immigrants represent 5 percent of all U.S. inmates and half of those were in the states illegally (The New York Times, 2017). The United States government is concerned with the vetting of immigrants and migrant workers. In an attempt to streamline these efforts, they have even created an e-Verify system, an internet-based system that verifies employees’ documents against millions of records to ensure their status in the U.S.

“Migrant workers are all here illegally.”
False

Actually, the majority of migrant workers are in the states through government programs, such as the H-2A visa program which provides foreign workers a temporary status to perform agricultural jobs (Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State).

Montgomery_table
Since 2008, the number of issued H-2A visas have almost doubled from 64,000 to 134,000. Source: Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State

“Migrant workers steal jobs from the local population.”
False

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, farmers requesting temporary workers must demonstrate there are not enough U.S. workers who are willing, able, and available to do the specified work. Many migrant workers are needed to harvest specialty crops, such as strawberry and citrus, where the need for migrant labor is substantial.

Migrant workers use their skills to provide a service to the country, specifically to the agricultural industry. Migrant workers assist during busy farming seasons to help provide a gateway for Americans to pursue careers in other areas. Coincidentally, the U.S. unemployment rate was at an all-time low in February of this year, a decrease of 22,000 from the month before (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

“Migrant workers are an integral part of U.S. food security.”
True

Today, farmers recognize native workers are not willing to do the work at the same salaries of migrant workers. Therefore, without migrant workers, the cost of labor increases, causing a direct correlation in the price at the checkout line (and you thought extra guacamole was already expensive!). In the September 2014 Census Bureau report on income and poverty in the U.S., the median household income across all jobs in America was $51,939—the average total individual income of farm workers is $15,000-$17,499.

Why should we care?

With the Trump administration’s plans to provide solutions to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and a complete overhaul of border security, the urgency to highlight the need of migrant agricultural workers is at an all-time high. There is a need for migrant workers to continue their work in the United States.

Take away your thoughts of the fiscal and social benefits these workers bring to our country. Think of how it affects you as an individual. For me, my father wouldn’t be able to continue in his agricultural pursuits. For you, it may be the cost to feed your family. Ultimately, we need these workers—our labor system relies upon that service. Consider all these things in the discussion of immigration reform. Something has to change.

Want to learn more about migrant workers and immigration? Click below to be taken to sources with lots of helpful information.