Immigration and Farm Labor: Policy Options and Consequences

Philip R. Martin
Published in
American Journal of Agrictultural Economics, Volume 95 (2013), 470-475

US farms employ 2.4 million hired workers sometime during a typical year, over half of whom are unauthorized. Hired farm labor is concentrated by commodity, geography, and size of farm. While all producers face risks due to immigration enforcement, large producers of labor-intensive crops in California, Florida, Texas, and Washington are most vulnerable to increased labor costs. The four major immigration policy options would increase enforcement against illegal migration. The status quo of more I-9 audits and state and local laws encourages risk avoidance, including farmers turning to labor contractors and other intermediaries to obtain workers so that liability for violations rests with these middlemen. An enforcement-only approach that requires all employers to use EVerify to check new hires may result in the circulation of unauthorized workers between employers. Stepped-up enforcement combined with easier access to guest workers should increase the share of farm jobs filled by legal foreign workers from less than 10 percent today. Finally, comprehensive immigration reforms that include more enforcement and legalization could accelerate the exodus of current workers from the farm work force and may increase the employment of guest worker.