The 112th Congress is considering a variety of proposed changes to U.S. immigration law as it relates to foreign-born farmworkers. Some of these proposals would create additional opportunities for persons from other countries to work legally in U.S. agriculture, while others would use different methods to enforce existing U.S. immigration restrictions.

Any of these proposals, if enacted, is likely to have a substantial impact on U.S. agriculture and the market for hired farm labor. Labor is a major input for many agricultural sectors, and persons not authorized to work legally in the United States constitute a large share of the farmworkers employed by U.S. agriculture.

A recent ERS study considers two possible changes in the supply of foreign-born farmworkers: (1) a 156,000-person increase in the number of temporary nonimmigrant foreign-born farmworkers, such as those admitted under the current H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program, and (2) a 5.8-million-person reduction in the number of unauthorized workers in all sectors of the economy, including agriculture. The study quantifies the possible effects of these hypothetical scenarios on agricultural output and exports, the agricultural and nonagricultural job markets, and the economy as a whole.

Farm Labor’s Importance to U.S. Agriculture

During 2006-10, hired farm labor accounted for 17 percent of variable production expenses in U.S. agriculture and even higher proportions of such expenses in more labor-intensive sectors, such as vegetables (35 percent), nursery products (46 percent), and fruit (48 percent) (fig. 1). The farm labor situation is complicated, however, by the fact that many U.S. farmworkers lack the immigration status needed to work legally in this country. Analysis conducted by Daniel Carroll, Annie Georges, and Russell Saltz using the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey indicates that over the past 15 years, about half of the hired workers employed in U.S. crop agriculture were unauthorized, with the overwhelming majority of these workers coming from Mexico. Similar survey-based information on immigration status is not available for workers in livestock and dairy production.

















What Has Been Introduced in the 112th Congress?

Several bills related to immigration and farmworkers were introduced in the 112th Congress, two of which are discussed here. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011 (S. 1258) incorporates many elements of the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJOBS), a decade-old proposal crafted by worker advocates and agricultural employers that was last introduced as a stand-alone bill in 2009. Several of its provisions make changes to the Federal Government’s H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program that might increase the program’s attractiveness to prospective employers. The H-2A program, as described by the U.S. Department of Labor, “establishes a means by which agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers can bring in nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.” In fiscal year 2011, a total of 68,088 positions in the program were certified. Use of the H-2A program has decreased in recent years, and the number of certifications now corresponds with roughly one-tenth of hired farm laborers, according to USDA’s Farm Labor Survey.