Implications of Immigration Policies for the U.S. Farm Sector and Workforce

Article excerpt


In 1942, the United States and Mexico signed the Bracero program, a formal agreement to draw seasonal labor to work in U.S. agriculture, which provided employment opportunities to poor rural Mexicans. (1) However, this program was abolished in 1964, ending the legal seasonal labor supply to U.S. agriculture in the southwestern states. Concurrently, the United States passed the Immigration Act of 1965, establishing a quota of 120,000 legal immigrants per year. The abandonment of the Bracero program, the new legal-immigrants' quota limits, and economic inequality between the United States and Mexico paved the way for steady entry of illegal laborers and led to eventual insurmountable illegal immigration population in the United States.

Because illegal immigration was not a serious problem in the 1960s and 1970s, legislation addressed only the number of legal immigrants allowed to enter the United States. But in the 1980s, illegal immigration began to emerge as a national problem, and extensive debates entrenched around issues such as preventing the entry of unauthorized workers, providing public services to illegal immigrants, and even legalizing these workers. Consequently, the U.S. Congress attempted to address the immigration problems by enacting the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The goals of IRCA were to eliminate the stock of undocumented workers through amnesty (2) and domestic enforcement of employer sanctions and curb the influx of illegal immigrants by increasing the border surveillance. Amnesty failed to eliminate the stock of illegal immigrants because only about half of the illegal immigrants filed for citizenship, and it created future expectation of amnesty and more illegal unauthorized entry. Furthermore, domestic sanctions on employers of undocumented workers and deportation of these workers were scantly enforced. To stop the influx of immigrants, IRCA focused heavily on tightening border control. The IRCA also legislated the H-2A program, which allowed agricultural employers to bring in guest workers during seasonal operations (ERS 2007). However, farmers complained that the cumbersome paperwork of H-2A and bureaucratic delay were not conducive to procure seasonal laborers at the time of peak farm operations such as vegetable and fruit picking. (3)

In spite of IRCA's amnesty provision and strengthened control measures, illegal immigration continued to rise--about 12 million unauthorized immigrants resided in the United States in 2007 (Martin 2007) which is reaffirmed by many popular press reports--leading to an extended congressional debate that began at the start of this decade to solve the illegal immigration problem. Several bills were proposed by the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House, addressing issues related to increased domestic and border enforcements, (4) paths to citizenship, and guest-worker programs (Montgomery 2006). These bills were not passed because of major disagreements among lawmakers over providing citizenship and guest-worker programs.

As a result of the failed legislations and the September 11 attack, the government primarily focused on border security. Accordingly, funding for border enforcement has steadily increased, (5) and resources were diverted from domestic to border enforcement. However, Boucher and Taylor (2007) documented that increased funding to secure the border did not deter undocumented workers from crossing the border because determined immigrants eventually find a way to enter the country by repeated attempts. Following September 11, 2001, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) further decreased the number of human hours devoted to worksite inspection because monitoring critical infrastructure took priority (GAO 2005). For example, from 1999 to 2003, the number of human hours for domestic enforcement decreased from 480,000 to 18,000. (6,7) But, by late 2005, the U. …