Farm Bureau Study Warns Against Enforcement-Heavy Immigration Reform

What does immigration have to do with American agriculture? Quite a bit, according to a recent study from the American Farm Bureau, a leading advocacy organization for the nation’s agricultural sector. The relationship is largely a question of labor economics. As the Farm Bureau study points out, “labor is farmers’ third highest expense, accounting for 17 percent of production costs for the sector as a whole and up to 40-50 percent in labor-intensive subsectors such as fruit, vegetables, and horticulture.” The hard work of planting and harvesting depends heavily on foreign labor, because it’s difficult to find American workers willing to do these jobs. The Farm Bureau cites a 2010 survey of H2A employers, showing that “68 percent of the 36,000 domestic workers state agencies referred to H2A employers did not accept jobs offered to them,” and “only 5 percent of referred workers worked through the contract period.” [See Gauging the Farm Sector’s Sensitivity to Immigration Reform via Changes in Labor Costs and Availability, by Patrick O’Brien, John Kruse, and Darlene Kruse, American Farm Bureau Federation, Feb 2014.]

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation summed it up neatly: “Either we import our labor or we import our food.” [See Agriculture Launches #IFarmImmigration Campaign for Immigration Reform, Press Release, American Farm Bureau Federation, 03.Feb.2014.]

In light of this labor predicament, the Farm Bureau cautioned against an enforcement-heavy approach to immigration reform, because undocumented workers comprise roughly one-sixth of the agricultural labor force – 525,000 out of the total ag labor force of 3,163,000 in 2012. Their study examined three generic options for immigration reform, and projected the likely economic impact of each:

  • Enforcement only / enforcement first – further strengthening border security and stepping up enforcement efforts would lead to a loss of up to 4.7 percent of the general-economy workforce (6.7 million workers), and cause farm employers to “lose most, if not all, of their 525,000 undocumented workforce.”
  • Enforcement plus a pathway to legalization – this option assumes quick legalization – if not citizenship – for undocumented workers in the ag labor force, and heavy enforcement to ensure legal hiring throughout the sector. The study found this option to be “only slightly less disruptive” than the enforcement-only approach, because it predicts that many newly legalized workers would leave agriculture for more lucrative occupations.
  • Enforcement plus a pathway to legalization, plus a guest worker program – this “would have less of a negative impact on agriculture” than the first two alternatives, but the magnitude of the difference depends on the design of the guest worker program.

Under an enforcement-only regime, the study projects a drop in net farm income of 15 percent to 29 percent, a drop in farm asset values of 10 to 15 percent, and a 5 to 6 percent increase in food prices; but even the best-case scenario is less than appetizing: a drop in net farm income of 6 percent, a 2 to 3 percent drop in farm asset values, and a 1 to 2 percent hike in food prices. The message to Congress: tread carefully in reforming our immigration system, because restricting the supply of farm labor won’t just hurt agriculture, it will hit consumers squarely in the wallet.

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