American agriculture is incredibly dependent upon foreign-born labor. In March of 2012, the Brookings Institution reported that immigrant labor constitutes approximately 25 percent of the agricultural sector. Their report utilized data from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, an initiative operated by the University of Minnesota. This statistic takes into account some, but hardly all, of the vast numbers of undocumented immigrants who enter the United States, largely from Mexico and Central America, for migrant farming work. As a result, the range of estimates of immigrant participation in agriculture is fairly wide; for example, the National Center for Farmworker Health reported, using data from the National Agricultural Workers Survey, that 72 percent of all farmworkers are foreign born.
Indeed, the United States senators who authored the Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which is to be debated in the senate in spring of 2013, explicitly acknowledge the role of immigrants in American agriculture, and the frequency with which it is exploited. Their paper contains the following excerpt:
“Similarly, individuals who have been working without legal status in the United States agricultural industry have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America’s food supply while earning subsistence wages. Due to the utmost importance in our nation maintaining the safety of its food supply, agricultural workers who commit to the long term stability of our nation’s agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume. These individuals will earn a path to citizenship through a different process under our new agricultural worker program.”
Unfortunately, as Salon’s Michael Lind explains, this proposed “agricultural worker program” is fairly problematic. A guest worker program, which already exists in the form of a United States Department of Labor H2-A visa, subjects an employee entirely to the will of his employer, and his legal status in the country is dependent upon his employment. In practice, there is hardly any system in place to protect the rights of H2-A workers, and as a result they are often mistreated. The lack of formal rights – and the means by which to protect them – results in a system akin to, in Lind’s words, “indentured serfdom.”
This immigration reform is obviously in its very early stages, and it seems that even as it develops, much work has yet to be done in protecting the rights and improving the conditions of foreign-born agricultural workers. Various initiatives have, however, already been undertaken to address these issues. Public Radio International’s The World reported on different projects undertaken just this year by the United States Department of Agriculture to support immigrant farmers, including one that provides training and translated technical materials for Spanish-speaking agricultural workers.