Just What We Need, More Illegal Immigrants

By Susan Martin
Volume 9, Number 1 (Fall 1998)
Issue theme: "Making the case for faith-based immigration reform"

Congress once again is considering legislation to create a new temporary agricultural worker program. From an immigration viewpoint, such a program would be a 'grievous mistake,' to quote the final report of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. An expanded agricultural guestworker program will likely increase illegal migration, undermining Congress's own attempts to gain control over the U.S. border, while doing little to address long-term issues in agricultural labor markets.

That a guestworker program will increase illegal migration might appear counter-intuitive, but decades of experience in the United States and elsewhere prove the point. Proponents of an expanded guestworker program argue that legal migrants will replace the now-illegal farmworkers who are estimated to form 50 percent or more of the workforce in perishable-crop agriculture. The argument runs as follows if illegal aliens can find legal work in agriculture, they will sign up as temporary workers, return home when the growing session is over, and reenter the following year when needed once more.

Unfortunately, this rosy scenario represents a gross misunderstanding of migration. Most of the estimated five million illegal aliens now work in urban labor markets, not in agriculture. Even more to the point, illegal aliens who begin in agriculture often move on to more stable or lucrative work in manufacturing, services, construction, landscaping and other low-skill industries. The more likely scenario if there is an expanded guestworker program is as follows migrants will enter legally via the guestworker program, some will return home at the end of the growing season, but a sizeable number will move into urban centers and remain within the U.S. Even if a part of the worker's wages are withheld until return, as has been proposed, migrants will quickly see that year-round employment in the United States will more than offset any lost wages. Those now willing to pay smugglers a hefty fee to reach Los Angeles, Chicago or New York will have a less expensive and less risky way to gain initial entry into the United States.

At the same time, agribusiness need for workers will not have been met. Hence, the next year, new temporary workers will be recruited to fill in for those who have moved to urban centers. Since would-be migrants in traditional sending areas already have networks established to help them enter the U.S. and find jobs in U.S. businesses, the recruitment will likely seek out new areas. This process occurred during the Bracero program in the 1950s when recruiters oriented many Mexican migrants toward the U.S. job market instead of toward local jobs and economic opportunities. When the Bracero program ended, the migration continued after the networks were well established. A new guest-worker program is likely to create a migration tradition in communities that have not previously had one.

It is perhaps a truism, but experience dictates that there is nothing more permanent than a temporary worker program. Business cycles may change, and the need for workers may wax and wane, but the migrants remain. The Seasonal Agricultural Worker program legalized about 1.1 million farm workers with the expectation that most would remain as seasonal employees in agriculture. Instead, most SAWs appear to have left agriculture, established permanent residence in U.S. cities, and petitioned for the legal admission of their families. Their jobs in agriculture have been filled by illegal aliens who are in precisely the situation the SAWs were in prior to legalization.

The German experience with its Turkish and Yugoslavian guestworker program was much the same. After actively recruiting workers during the 1960s, Germany called an end to the program when the 1973 oil crisis curtailed industrial growth. Instead of compliantly returning, however, millions of guestworkers and their families remained in Germany, having established social, economic and other ties to their new homeland. To paraphrase one German observer, 'we recruited workers but people came.'

If the United States already had effective enforcement against illegal entry and overstay, and agribusiness could demonstrate an actual shortage of workers (neither of which is now true), perhaps a new agricultural worker program would be justified. Even then, however, other options should be carefully considered before risking the renewal of illegal migration. Although national unemployment rates are low, there is significant unemployment and underemployment in the very places that perishable crop agriculture is located. For example, Fresno, Merced and Modesto, California, all have double-digit unemployment. Improved wages and working conditions could attract already resident workers to farm jobs without driving prices to levels that American consumers cannot afford.

Increased mechanization could also address labor shortages that may result from more effective immigration enforcement. Farmers have been unwilling to invest in laborsaving machinery because of the widespread availability of cheap labor. Yet, agricultural sectors that have bitten the mechanization bullet have weaned themselves from dependence on foreign labor.

An expanded guestworker program is an idea whose time has not yet and perhaps never will come. Congress should heed the conclusions of a joint U.S.-Mexican study on migration between the two countries 'The United States and Mexico should study carefully the concept of a bilateral foreign worker program, recognizing that such a program is unlikely to be an effective remedy to unauthorized migration or to have sufficient standards to protect the rights of workers. A guestworker program could stimulate new migration networks, adding to, rather than substituting for, unauthorized workers.