Undocumented farmworkers and the U.S. agribusiness economic model

Undocumented farmworkers and the U.S. agribusiness economic model

There is little doubt that many supporters of the Donald Trump candidacy for President expect President-elect Trump to carry out his promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and to keep out more immigrants by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (The Center for Migration Studies estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States with about six million from Mexico.)

However, according to a 2014 report commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation, about half of all hired farm workers are undocumented immigrants. U.S. industrial-scale animal agriculture and horticulture depend on “the abundant supply of undocumented workers available and their willingness to accept transitory, seasonal, or physically arduous work that pays introductory wages that are unattractive to the U.S.-born.” According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of farm labor, non-supervisory wages for all farm workers reported in 2012 averaged $10.80 an hour. How will the Trump administration both protect the agribusiness migrant labor dependent business model and fulfill the campaign promise to protect American jobs by deporting the undocumented?

Candidate Trump has said his administration would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to get a better deal for the United States. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has called on the President-elect to make NAFTA renegotiation “an immediate priority once in office.” If there is bi-partisan support for renegotiation, how might it affect migrant farm workers?

As IATP’s Karen Lehman testified to Congress in 1993, the terms of the NAFTA agriculture chapter would drive a very conservatively estimated 600,000 to 700,000 Mexican farmers (and their families) off their land to the United States to look for work. According to a Mexican legislator, as of January 2015, about 550,000 Mexican farmers a year migrate to the United States. Stemming futures flows of Mexican farmers into the undocumented U.S. agricultural workforce will require renegotiating NAFTA to prevent agricultural export dumping, i.e. exporting at prices below the cost of production, with which the unsubsidized Mexican farmers cannot compete. 

Measures to end dumping will not be popular with agribusiness donors to Congressional elections and so are unlikely to be included in a renegotiated NAFTA. The flow of undocumented labor into U.S. agribusiness very likely will keep coming, both from Mexico and via Mexico, from the Central American Free Trade Agreement countries.

As if to anticipate that flow, the Farm Bureau currently advocates an “uncapped Agricultural Worker Visa Program (AWP) [that] will ensure agriculture’s future legal workforce.” For migrant farm workers currently residing in the United States, the Farm Bureau proposes—subject to requiring a worker’s commitment to agricultural labor “for several years”—an immigration policy according to which “the workers could obtain permanent legal status and the right to work in whatever industries they choose, including agriculture.”

“Permanent legal status,” much less citizenship with voting rights, is likely a non-starter with the incoming Congressional majority and their electoral support base. Thus, the Farm Bureau proposal looks at updating the 1942-1964 temporary Mexican Farm Labor Program. The Farm Bureau and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported the creation of that long-term force of temporary agricultural labor, which sabotaged the ability of farmworkers to organize for better wages, working conditions and temporary housing. That kind of labor “reform” might well appeal to a Republican majority and to a Trump White House because it would enable agribusiness as usual.

There are many other causes of migration besides trade policy that drive farmers out of business and into emigration. According to the United Nations’ International Migrant Report 2015, global migration is estimated at 244 million, with 47 million immigrants residing in the United Statesand 76 million in Europe.

One important emigration driver is climate change that is helping to degrade soil quality and fertility. Major investments to adapt to climate change by improving soil are absent and a recent report estimates that there will be about 50 million climate change refugees over the next decade.

President-elect Trump told The New York Times  that he is “keeping an open mind” about climate change but he nominated a climate change denier to be in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. If the Trump administration climate policy does not come with U.S. funding for farmers in developing countries to adapt to climate change, the Farm Bureau advocated pool of permanent temporary migrant farmworkers could become much larger much faster.