WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2016 - Farmworker wages are rising amid a steady decline in illegal immigration from Mexico and a tightening labor supply for growers. The number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico who are living in the United States peaked at 6.9 million a decade ago and has dropped to 5.6 million, the government says. Meanwhile, wages paid to workers rose by an average 3.8 percent last year, says Tom Hertz, a USDA economist. “With a tightening labor supply you would expect wages rising and indeed they are,” he said.

There have been even bigger wage increases in selected sectors, according to data Hertz presented this week during a Washington forum sponsored by AGree. Pay in the poultry and egg sector, for example, was up 7.9 percent last year, while wages for workers in sugarcane, tree nuts and oranges rose at least 6 percent. Growers of many other crops are paying at least 4 percent more, including strawberries, apples, aquaculture, beef cattle and hogs.

Farmworker wages have always been a lot lower than pay for non-farm blue-collar jobs in general, but that gap is shrinking somewhat. Farm wages are now 55 to 56 percent of blue-collar pay, up from 51 percent, according to government statistics.

Another indication of a tightening supply: Workers move around less than they used to. Some 84 percent now stay with the same farm. “Newcomers are hard to find these days,” Hertz said.

At the same time, demand for the H-2A visa program continues to grow sharply, nearly doubling to 140,000 between 2011 and 2015. And retailers are selling more imported fruits and vegetables. Some 28.2 percent of the fresh produce sold in the United States from 2010 to 2012 was imported, compared to 15.7 percent in 1998-2000, according to USDA data.

The big question for producers is what the next Congress or administration is going to do about the tighter farm labor market. As Agri-Pulse reported last week, Donald Trump’s advisers say he’s open to considering easing requirements in the H-2A program.

But would he follow through? Lynn Jaquez, an immigration law specialist who as a House committee staffer played a key role in drafting the 1986 immigration reform law, believes a new administration could rewrite the H-2A rules to cover year-round workers without congressional action. The program is now limited to seasonal employees, cutting out sectors such as dairy, which need workers year-round. Agriculture interests also would likely seek some easing of wage and housing regulations.

But if an immigration hard-liner such as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions were to get a key post such as Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, farmers would have a hard time getting the administrative changes they want, she warns. “I keep telling people that while Trump has no idea what hes talking about when it comes to visa admissions and everything else, Sessions does,” Jaquez said.

A legislative fix or replacement for H-2A remains a long shot. Passing comprehensive immigration reform, which would include an expanded farmworker visa program, will still be difficult next year in the House where there is strong conservative opposition to legalizing undocumented immigrants. Conservatives prefer a piecemeal approach to immigration reform. But Democrats and advocates for immigrants have insisted on a comprehensive bill that would address the issue of legal status for immigrants as well as the concerns of agriculture and other business sectors. Passing a separate agriculture labor bill could reduce what GOP support there is for a comprehensive bill.

“The only way we’re going to get to the finish line is if we all hang in there together, all the different interests,” said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, a deputy vice president of the National Council of La Raza.

But Jaquez argues that agricultural interests would still have a political incentive to support immigration reform even if an administration expanded access to H-2A. It’s been suggested that legalized farmworkers would leave agriculture in search of better-paying jobs. But Jaquez says farmers would benefit from their experienced workers gaining legal status.

“I think the industry is still going to insist on, and will still argue for, a regularization of status of its current workforce,” Jaquez said. “Those people have been here so long. You can’t substitute the crew supervisor for a new worker coming in.”


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