Several lawmakers are currently trying to pass a bill, called the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would streamline the H-2A agricultural guest worker program and provide a pathway to citizenship for an estimated one million farmworkers currently residing in the United States (Peterson and Hackman 2022). The overall effects of the legislation, if passed, are difficult to predict.
In 1986, the United States implemented the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which provided amnesty for farm workers who had been working and residing in the United States illegally through the Special Agricultural Workers (SAW) program. It also made it illegal to knowingly hire unauthorized immigrants. Prior to 1986, unauthorized immigrants bore the risk of deportation, and employers bore the risk of losing their workforce in a raid led by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE). However, employers were not fined or otherwise prosecuted for hiring unauthorized immigrants.
IRCA sent mixed messages to potential immigrants. On the one hand, IRCA discouraged immigration by making it riskier for employers to knowingly hire unauthorized workers, but on the other hand the SAW program suggested that unauthorized immigrants might eventually receive legal status if they worked in the United States long enough. IRCA made provisions to help agricultural producers maintain access to a stable supply of seasonal workers by creating the H-2A guest worker visa program and the Replenishment Agricultural Worker (RAW) program. However, take-up of H-2A was minimal the first 2 decades following IRCA, and RAW expired without being used. Empirical analysis shows that unauthorized immigration increased following IRCA (Boucher et al 2007). Farmers had little need to hire guest workers through a costly and cumbersome government process if unauthorized immigrants continued migrating to their farms. Only recently has H-2A take-up increased as the flow of unauthorized immigrants to farms has declined (see for example, Castillo and Charlton (2022)).
Republicans are generally reticent to pass legislation that provides amnesty to unauthorized workers, particularly before the border is secure (Peterson and Hackman 2022). Experience from IRCA would suggest that their concerns may be valid, but inability to compromise might be costly to agricultural producers and farm workers. There is currently no pathway to citizenship for H-2A workers, even if they have worked in the United States for decades. Furthermore, increasing incidence of border snarls frequently delay H-2A workers, even causing farmers to leave crops unharvested on occasion (Laudato 2021; Rosenthal 2016). These delays also diminish the total seasonal earnings H-2A workers can make before returning to their homes. There have been many attempts to reform H-2A, yet none have passed both houses of Congress. Will the Farm Workforce Modernization Act be the exception? And if it is, what will be the overall impacts on immigration, farm labor supply, H-2A worker welfare, and producer costs of recruiting and hiring guest workers?
Boucher, S.R., Smith, A., Taylor, J.E., Yúnez-Naude, A. (2007) Impacts of Policy Reforms on the Supply of Mexican Labor to U.S. Farms: New Evidence from Mexico. Review of Agricultural Economics 29(1): 4-16
Castillo, M. and Charlton, D. (2022) Housing Booms and H-2A Agricultural Guest Worker Employment. American Journal of Agricultural Economics.
Laudato, A. (2021) Down on the Farm: A Shortage of Agricultural Labor. CBS News June 27.
Peterson, K. and Hackman, M. (2022) Backers of Farmworker Visa Overhaul Make Year-End Push for Immigrant Labor Deal. Wall Street Journal. November 25.
Rosenthal, L. (2016) Farms Wait, And Wait, For Guest Workers Amid H-2A Visa Delays. National Public Radio, the Salt. May 28.