Immigration and the Rural Workforce

Inflows of immigrants of all skill categories have long augmented the nation’s labor force. At present, several labor-intensive U.S. industries including construction, hotels, restaurants, and agriculture, employ a large number of foreign-born workers, not all of whom are legally authorized to work in this country. ERS research has examined the characteristics of the farm labor force and studied the implications of possible changes in immigration policy on farm labor markets. This research is summarized below, along with background information on immigration as it relates to farms and rural communities:

Potential Impact on Agriculture of Changes in Immigration Policy

Two recent ERS studies shed light on the relationship between immigrant labor and the farm sector. One study estimated the effects of two hypothetical changes in immigration policies that affected the availability of foreign-born labor. Increased employment of temporary nonimmigrant farmworkers was shown to lead to a longrun relative increase in agricultural output and exports, with the largest effect on labor-intensive sectors such as fruit, vegetables, and nursery products. By contrast, a large reduction in the number of unauthorized workers in all economic sectors resulted in a longrun relative reduction in output and exports for both agriculture and the broader economy. See "Immigration Policy and Its Possible Effects on U.S. Agriculture" in Amber Waves or the following full report.

The Potential Impact of Changes in Immigration Policy on U.S. Agriculture and the Market for Hired Farm Labor: A Simulation Analysis

The second study assessed how growers of particular fruits and vegetables might adjust to an increase in farm wages, if changes in immigration policy, or other factors, were to reduce the labor supply. Analysis of case studies suggested a range of possible adjustment scenarios, including increased mechanization for crops such as baby leaf lettuce, Florida juice oranges, and raisin grapes. Production of other crops, such as apples and fresh strawberries, would likely rely increasingly on aids such as hydraulic platforms and conveyor belts to improve labor productivity. Crops that cannot readily be mechanized and face significant competition for export markets, or from imports, would likely see domestic production levels fall (see full report below).

The U.S. Produce Industry and Labor: Facing the Future in a Global Economy

Hired Farmworkers: Legal Status

Hired farmworkers make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers, but play an essential role in U.S. agriculture. In 2012, some 1.1 million hired farmworkers on average were employed on U.S. farms, according to the Farm Labor Survey of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). This number has held fairly steady over the past 5 years, but is slightly lower than its level during 1990-2000.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) provides information about the immigration status of hired crop farmworkers but does not cover the livestock sector, for which no similar data are available. Of those crop workers surveyed between 2007 and 2009, 71 percent were foreign-born (67 percent in Mexico and 4 percent elsewhere). Forty-eight percent of crop workers surveyed indicated that they were not legally authorized to work in the United States, down slightly from the peak of 54 percent in 1999-2001.

Source: USDA-ERS analysis of NAWS data.

Share of unauthorized farmworkers is higher in fruit and vegetables and among new entrants to farmwork (percent)
Crop Hired farmworkers1 – U.S. citizen Hired farmworkers1 – Other authorized Hired farmworkers1 – Not authorized New entrants2 – U.S. citizen New entrants2 – Other authorized New entrants2 – Not authorized
Fruits and nuts 9 24 67 2 2 97
Vegetables 17 22 61 8 2 90
Misc. or multiple 35 19 45 56 2 45
Nurseries 48 17 35 59 1 40
Field crops 64 14 22 55 0 44
All 30 20 50 26 2 72
1All hired crop farmworkers.
2New entrants are defined as workers whose first farm job was less than two years prior to their interview date.
Note: Except for rounding error, percentages by immigration status add to 100 for all hired farmworkers, and for new entrants, in each crop category.
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service analysis of U.S. Department of Labor, National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2005-09.

For more demographic and economic information on the hired farm workforce, please see the ERS Farm Labor topic page, as well as the following report.

Profile of Hired Farmworkers, A 2008 Update

Hired Farmworkers: Wages and Employment

Farm wages vary significantly by task, crop, region, and legal status, but on average, farmworkers have among the lowest annual earnings of all U.S. workers, both because their hourly wages are relatively low, and because many farmworkers are unable to find year-round employment in agriculture. Between 1990 and 2012, the average real hourly wage of nonsupervisory hired farmworkers (including both authorized and unauthorized workers) increased by 19 percent, reaching $10.80 per hour in 2012 (see figure below). This increase was insufficient, however, to narrow the gap between farm and nonfarm wages, on average. For instance, farm wages have typically been about one dollar per hour less than wages in the leisure and hospitality sector, another low-wage industry that depends heavily on foreign-born workers.

Figure 2 - Hourly Wages of Nonsupervisory Crop and Livestock Workers Compared to Nonsupervisory Workers in the Nonfarm Economy (Inflation-adjusted to 2012 prices)

Hired farmworkers are one of the few categories of predominantly manual laborers that did not suffer large employment losses during the Great Recession of 2007-09. Indeed, employment of hired farm laborers, supervisors, and managers actually stabilized in 2008 and rose somewhat in 2009 and 2010, after declining for much of the first decade of the 21st century (See "Hired Farm Labor Held Steady in Great Recession" in Amber Waves).

At the national level, there is no evidence that this recent increase in employment was accompanied by a large increase in wages. Two governmental sources of wage data indicate that the average real wage of hired crop farm workers rose by about 3 percent between 2007 and 2009 and then returned to its 2007 level by 2011, while a third reports that the wage rose from 2007 to 2010 and then leveled off in 2011, with a cumulative increase of 7 percent since 2007. County- and crop-specific data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, however, reveal some locations and farm activities where there were sharply rising farm wages and falling agricultural employment between 2010 and 2011—phenomena that could indicate the presence of localized labor shortages (Tom Hertz and Steven Zahniser, “Is There a Farm Labor Shortage,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 95(2): 476–481, December 2012).

H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program

The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program provides a legal means to bring foreign-born workers to the United States to perform seasonal farm labor on a temporary basis.  Employers must demonstrate, and the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) must certify, that efforts to recruit U.S. workers were not successful. Employers must provide housing and pay the higher of the applicable state or federal minimum wage, the prevailing wage in that region and occupation, as determined by the USDOL, or the regional average wage observed in NASS’s Farm Labor Survey. The latter is known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate. For Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, this wage rate ranges from $9.50 to $12.33 per hour, depending on the state (see map below).

Figure 3 - FY 2013 Adverse Effects Wage Rates

H-2A employment has accounted for less than 5 percent of the hired farm work force in recent years. In FY 2012 (through September 16, 2012), 83,579 positions were certified under the H-2A program. During the previous five FYs, this number ranged between 66,000 and 89,000. The figure below identifies the states with more than 2,000 certified H-2A positions in FY 2011 and the primary crop associated with those positions.

Figure 4 - Positions certified

Previous Legal Frameworks for Obtaining Foreign-Born Farm Labor

The H-2A program is not the only legal framework the United States has used to obtain foreign-born farm labor. Two important programs from the past are the Bracero Program and the legalization of unauthorized farmworkers as part of the Immigration and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).

From 1942 to 1964, a significant share of agriculture’s demand for seasonal workers was met through the Bracero Program, which recruited millions of Mexicans to work on U.S. farms on a temporary basis. Total admissions under the program equaled about 4.6 million, with many workers participating in multiple years. Admissions reached their highest level in 1956 at about 445,000 (“Braceros: History, Compensation,” Rural Migration News, April 2006). On average, the annual participation level in the Bracero Program was roughly 2.5 times the current participation level in the H-2A program.

Wages and working conditions under the Bracero Program came under criticism, and the program was eventually phased out. Farmers responded to the program’s end in three main ways. First, some farmers whose need for seasonal labor lasted less than 120 days per year hired workers through the H-2 temporary worker program, the precursor of today’s H-2A program. Farmers with longer-term labor needs, however, including many in California’s fruit and vegetable sector, were not able to use the H-2 program. Second, some farmers raised wages and reduced employment, as economic theory would predict, and a number of farmers signed agreements with farmworker unions. Third, advances in plant breeding and mechanical design permitted some crops, such as cannery tomatoes, to be harvested mechanically. These same three adjustment mechanisms are likely to come into play if labor costs rise in the future.

In 1986, IRCA provided an opportunity for unauthorized immigrants to gain temporary legal residency in the United States and then to apply for permanent residency status by demonstrating that she or he had either: (1) lived in the United States continuously since before January 1, 1982 (“pre-’82”); or (2) performed labor in perishable agricultural commodities in the United States for at least 90 days in the year ending on May 1, 1986 or in each of the 3 years prior to May 1986 (Special Agricultural Workers [SAW]). Roughly 2.7 million people were granted permanent residence via these channels, including about 1.1 million under the SAW provisions (Nancy Rytina, "IRCA Legalization Effects: Lawful Permanent Residence and Naturalization through 2001." U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 2002).

At the time of IRCA’s passage, one concern was that the legalization of previously unauthorized farmworkers would increase their mobility in the labor market, leading to an exodus out of agriculture, and that IRCA’s enforcement provisions would limit access to new immigrant labor. An article co-authored by an ERS researcher about 6 years after IRCA’s passage, for instance, estimated the consequences of an expected reduction in farm labor supply (Lewell Gunter, Joseph Jarrett, and James Duffield, "Effect of U.S. Immigration Reform on Labor-Intensive Agricultural Commodities," American Journal of Agricultural Economics 74(4): 897-906, November 1992). In fact, the Act was followed by an increase in farm labor supply, as the number of unauthorized workers rose. Current immigration policy debates reflect similar concerns.

Foreign-Born Populations in Rural Areas

The foreign-born population of the United States has increased rapidly since 1970, primarily due to immigration from Latin America and Asia. By 2010, about 40 million people of foreign birth lived in the United States, accounting for 13 percent of the population.

Sources: Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-2000 and U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Born, 2010.

Sources: Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-2000 and U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Born, 2010.

Sources: Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-2000 and U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Born, 2010.

Sources: Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-2000 and U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Born, 2010.

Foreign-born as a share of total population, 1970-2010
Year Foreign-born population (millions) Share of total population (percent)
1970 9.6 4.7
1980 14.1 6.2
1990 19.8 7.9
2000 31.1 11.1
2010 40.0 12.9

During 2007-11, an average of 2.1 million foreign-born persons lived either in nonmetro counties or in metro counties whose economies are heavily dependent on agriculture. Although the foreign-born in such counties accounted for a smaller percentage of the total population (4.1 percent) than in the nation as a whole, some of these counties have large shares of foreign-born people. Counties where this share was one-quarter or more are indicated in the map below in dark blue; examples include Aleutian Islands East Borough, Alaska (63 percent); Miami-Dade County, Florida (51 percent); Garza County, Texas (38 percent); Santa Cruz County, Arizona (33 percent); Imperial County, California (32 percent); Clark County, Idaho (31 percent); Seward County, Kansas (31 percent); Echols County, Georgia (26 percent); and Franklin County, Washington (26 percent).

Figure 5 - Share of foreign-born population in nonmetropolitan and selected metropolitan counties, 2007-11

See ERS County Typology Codes

Hispanic Populations in Rural Areas

Slightly more than half of the foreign-born in the United States were born in Latin America and the Caribbean, and roughly half of these were born in Mexico. In rural areas in particular, much of the increase in the foreign-born population has been driven by inflows of Hispanic immigrants. (The U.S. Census Bureau uses the term Hispanic to refer to people “of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”)

Between 1980 and 2010, the Hispanic population in the United States (including both foreign- and U.S.-born) increased from 14.6 million to 50.5 million, an increase of 246 percent, compared to 22 percent for the non-Hispanic population. In the 1980s, growth of the Hispanic population was concentrated in metro areas. Since 1990, however, the growth in the Hispanic population has been especially rapid in nonmetro communities, particularly in the Southeast and Midwest, many of which had not previously had large numbers of Spanish-speaking residents. More details on the scope, geography, and consequences of the growth in the Hispanic population may be found in the following ERS report.

New Patterns of Hispanic Settlement in Rural America

Figure 6 - Rate of Population Growth: Metro and Nonmetro Hispanic and Non-Hispanic, 1980-2010

Hispanics played a major role in the restructuring of the U.S. meat processing industry. During the 1980s and 1990s, this industry switched to lower skilled labor and relocated plants to rural areas. Hispanics moved into the meat-processing workforce and helped to meet the sector’s demand for lower-skilled, low-wage workers. This inflow of Hispanic labor transformed many rural communities, mitigating the decline of the population and stimulating local economies. (See "Meat-Processing Firms Attract Hispanic Workers to Rural America" in Amber Waves.)

Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States

Most foreign-born persons in the United States are legal residents—a category that includes naturalized U.S. citizens as well as noncitizens granted lawful permanent residency status or asylum, or admitted as refugees or as nonimmigrants on a temporary stay in the United States, such as students or temporary workers. Official government estimates place the number of unauthorized immigrants (those who are not legal residents) in the United States at 11.5 million as of January 2011. Corresponding estimates at the county level or for all nonmetro and farming-dependent counties are not available.

Between 2000 and 2007, the number of unauthorized immigrants is estimated to have increased from 8.5 to 11.8 million (see figure). Since then, the size of this population has declined slightly, a development that has been attributed to “relatively high U.S. unemployment, improved economic conditions in Mexico… and greater levels of border enforcement” (see "Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2011," Population Estimates, March 2012).

Figure 7 - Unauthorized immigrant population