The Wages of Agricultural Workers
Proponents of a new temporary worker program argue that increased immigration enforcement would lead to fewer illegal agricultural workers and, as a consequence, the American consumer would face a major increase in the cost of food. This is factually incorrect according to experts. Dr. Philip Martin, a leading academic authority on agricultural labor, notes that American consumers now spend more on alcoholic beverages on average than they spend on fresh fruits and vegetables.1
An average household currently spends about $370 per year on fruits and vegetables. If curtailing illegal alien agricultural labor caused tighter labor conditions and a 40 percent increase in wages, the increased cost to the American family would be $9 a year, or about 2.4 cents per day. Yet for the farm laborer, the change would mean an increase in earnings from $8,800 to $12,350 for each 1,000 hours of work (25 weeks if the worker worked 40-hour weeks). That increase would move the worker from beneath the federal poverty line to above it. 2
According to Dr. Martin, “…consumers who pay $1 for a pound of apples, or $1 for a head of lettuce, are giving 16 to 19 cents to the farmer and 5 to 6 cents to the farm worker.” 3 Therefore, a 40 percent increase in the 5 to 6 cents a pound that the farm worker receives would amount to an increase of about 2 cents per pound that would probably be passed on to the consumer.
Although this recent finding about agricultural labor and produce costs may not have been known by those making the alarmist statements about rising market costs, they certainly should have known better on the basis of earlier studies. For example, in 1996 the Center for Immigration Studies published a study by another academic expert that reported similar results.4 That study found that, “The removal of illegal workers from the seasonal agricultural workforce would increase the summer-fall supermarket prices of fresh fruits and vegetables by about 6 percent in the short run and 3 percent in the intermediate term. During the winter-spring seasons, prices would rise more than 3 percent in the short term and less then 2 percent in the intermediate term.” 5
An example of the misleading information used to bolster efforts of agricultural labor employers to obtain greater access to cheap, exploitable foreign workers may be seen in a research study published by Arizona State University that estimated that wages would have to rise by 41.7% to replace an estimated 60% of agricultural workers who are illegal aliens and that this could cost an additional $8.84 billion annually to be absorbed by the consumer or the producer. 6
What is misleading about such claims is that they ignore that there is a visa program for foreign agricultural workers that allows an unlimited number of annual entries of legal workers if the employer first tries to find American workers, complies with protections for the foreign workers, and pays wages high enough to not undercut wages for American workers. This program assures that employers could replace illegal foreign workers with legal ones without the major wage and cost increases estimated by the researchers. But, because it is cheaper for the employer to hire illegal workers, the program has been underused. In fiscal year 2004, there were 22,141 legal entries by agricultural workers using H-2A visas.
It is also useful to keep in mind that seasonal crop agriculture is only a small share of the value of the country’s overall agricultural production. In 2004, livestock production accounted for 51.2 percent of total agricultural production while crops accounted for the balance. Among the crops, vegetable production accounted for 7.2 percent of total agricultural production and fruits accounted for 6.4 percent. Mechanized crops, such as corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, and cotton, accounted for a larger share of the value of agricultural production than fruits and vegetables.7 And even among the fruit and vegetable crops, some are harvested mechanically rather than by seasonal crop laborers.
Why then couldn’t the agricultural employers use the legal temporary worker program to meet their need for workers rather than hiring illegal aliens? They could, and some do already. However, the protections in that system for both American workers — so that it can be used only if there are not American workers available, and to prevent the program from undercutting wages — and for the foreign temporary workers — setting requirements for housing and wages — make it more expensive for employers than hiring on-the-spot illegal workers.
The lack of enforcement against employers who employ illegal alien workers has allowed so many employers to hire so many illegal workers that wages in seasonal crop agriculture have decreased over recent decades after adjustment for inflation. As a result those employers who want to have a legal workforce are at a serious competitive disadvantage if they insist on hiring only legal workers. This situation will not be reversed until enforcement measures are comprehensively and effectively administered to restore a level playing field in the seasonal crop agricultural sector.
Since 1986, immigration enforcement authorities have been effectively barred from entering the property of an agricultural employer without a warrant to determine whether workers are illegal aliens.8 Although an employer could give consent to an enforcement operation without a warrant, an employer of illegal aliens is unlikely to do so because an investigation could result in disruption of a harvest and possible liability for hiring illegal alien workers.
The enforcement provisions in both the immigration reform bill passed by the House of Representatives in December 2005 (H.R.4437) and by the Senate in May 2006 (S.2611) would require employers to verify the legal work status of employees. These provisions, if enacted into law, would not, however, limit the ability of an agricultural employer to employ workers off of the books and avoid detection because of the limitation on investigations in the open field.
Would an American family be willing to contemplate an additional cost in agricultural produce of about a quarter of a dollar a day — considerably less than a beer? Would most Americans support such a change if it meant getting effective control over illegal immigration and bringing wages for seasonal crop laborers above the poverty line? It seems unlikely that many Americans would say no to either question.
Footnotes and endnotes
 INA Sec. 287(e) provides that, “…an officer or employee of the [immigration] Service may not enter without the consent of the owner (or agent thereof) or a properly executed warrant onto the premises of a farm or other outdoor agricultural operation for the purpose of interrogating a person believed to be an alien as to the person’s right to be or to remain in the United States.”