Eric Ruark's picture


  by  Eric Ruark

Ruben Navarrette, Jr. is an opinion journalist who has been writing on immigration for many years. He is an immigration expansionist, and often impugns the motives of those who are on the other side of the issue. He once wrote a piece decrying former United Farm Workers union head Cesar Chavez for his “ugly history” of trying to prevent “illegal immigrants undercutting union members, either by accepting lower wages or crossing picket lines.”

It seems strange to malign a union boss for trying to protect members of his union from the ill effects of illegal immigration, but we are living in strange times. In light of recent remarks from Navarrette, his contempt for Chavez’s fight to secure a living wage for the men and women who put food on America’s tables comes into sharp focus.

At an immigration forum in California’s Central Valley, Navarrette spoke to the Joanne Lui, the associate editor at California Ag Today. Navarrette referenced the RAISE Act and had this to say:

There’s this disconnect in Washington and New York … mostly urban areas where politicians don’t think much about agriculture, agribusiness…They have no clue about where this fruit is coming from when they walk down the street in New York and they see an orange. They don’t understand how dangerous something like the RAISE Act would be if you ultimately limit the amount of people who come here based on education and skills.

Let’s first note that the sponsors of the RAISE Act, Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue represent Arkansas and Georgia respectively, two states with large and influential agribusiness concerns, and these Senators are very familiar with agricultural issues. Secondly, and most importantly, Navarrette’s fundamental criticism of the bill is totally off the mark because the RAISE Act does not affect agricultural guest workers and will have no impact on the agricultural industry's ability to employ crop workers.

While reforms do need to be made to guest workers programs, the RAISE Act doesn't address guest workers and it doesn't cut employment-based visas, it only deals with how those visas are allocated. It does cut out the chain migration of extended family members, and eliminates the visa lottery, which will reduce the number of immigrants coming into the United States who are not vetted for education or job skills. It is true that the bill’s shift to merit-based allocation mean skilled immigrants will be a higher proportion of those admitted, but the number of employer sponsored visas available every year will stay the same. Under the RAISE Act agribusiness will continue to have access to an unlimited number of H-2A agricultural guest workers.

Navarrette is falsely insinuating that U.S. agribusiness firms are dependent upon a workforce of green card holders, and would lose access to that workforce with the passage of the RAISE Act. That contention does not even remotely approach the truth.

Hired farm workers make up less than one percent of wage earners in the United States, and less than 2 percent of the foreign-born population in the Unites States work as farm laborers. Of those workers, about 30 percent are U.S-born, and 48 percent are illegal aliens, and for crop laborers the percentage who are illegal aliens is considerably higher. A 2008 USDA report found that only around 5 percent of farm workers are H-2A guest workers, though indications are that this percentage has increased in recent years.

In 2015, out of 1,051,031 greens cards issued, 4,157, 0.4%, went to individuals working in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations. That number has been higher in previous years, but only marginally, and most of those green cards go to loggers, conservation workers, and heavy machine operators, not peach pickers.

Other green cards have been rewarded to agribusiness firms who employ individuals whose work is not directly related to agriculture. A good example is Perdue Farms, a major poultry and pork processer in Salisbury, Maryland. In 2015, Perdue submitted two green card petitions – for computer systems analysts.

Agribusiness does not oppose the RAISE Act because the bill would affect crop workers. Until greater enforcement measures are put into place, most importantly mandating all U.S. employers use E-Verify, growers will continue to hire illegal aliens with virtual impunity. Agribusiness fears the RAISE Act because the bill would make it more difficult for them to bring in foreign workers on green cards to work as to poultry processors, forklift drivers, tech support, etc. These are jobs Americans will do, but also will command higher wages than their foreign counterparts if employed.

There is also a larger concern for the agriculture industry. Its lobbyists are pushing for an expansion of the definition of “ag jobs” to include anyone who is ever in the proximity of a food product, such as the truck driver who delivers packages of frozen food to the supermarket. This is coupled with a push for a new or expanded “agricultural” guest worker program that would effectively shut American workers out of millions of jobs

The RAISE Act is predicated on putting American workers first. That principle is anathema to the agribusiness lobby, but it is a principle supported by many of the small and mid-size farmers I have spoken to over the years. Most of them would like to see more enforcement and a more efficient H-2A program that would allow them to bring in guest workers when needed. This would lead to higher wages for all workers in agriculture, and much less abuse of unauthorized workers, who have little recourse to justice in the current system. These farmers want to do the right thing and understand that a level playing field brought about by sensible legislation would benefit honest and honorable employers.

Navarrette trots out the canard that “farmers” will not be able to find workers if the RAISE Act passes, which is made more ridiculous by his earlier contention that farmers are dependent on green card holders to pick their crops, when green card holders, as legal U.S. residents, have the same access to the labor market as citizens and compete for the same jobs. If citizens will never pick crops, as Navarrette contends (at least for the past 30 years), then green card holders aren’t going to do it either.


I think there’s a lot of people who wrongly believe that American workers will do those jobs if the wages are high enough, and the way they tell the story [is] to make the agribusiness and the farmers into the bad guy…If you know enough farmers and you go out into enough fields and you interview enough farmers and enough workers, you know that’s completely false.

There is no doubt that most Americans don’t want to do stoop farm labor. But neither do foreign workers, no matter their status. That is why an increasing number of Central Americans are stopping in Mexico instead of continuing north to cross the U.S. border illegally. These migrants are starting to see Mexico as a more attractive place when compared to the labor conditions they face on U.S. farms.

The median pay for farmworkers is 59 percent of other U.S. wage earners, and poverty among farm workers is more than double that of all other occupations.

The USDA says:

Housing conditions of farmworkers have historically been substandard because of crowding, poor sanitation, poor housing quality, proximity to pesticides, and lax inspection and enforcement of housing regulations.

Why would Americans want to labor under such conditions? Why would anyone?

There is a genuine need to address the labor conditions of agricultural workers in the United States. The RAISE Act does not do that because it is written in a narrow way to address how the United States issues green cards. That is a crucial first step to genuine reform of the immigration system, but it does not solve everything.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is reportedly working on a bill to create a new agricultural guest worker program. We will have to wait and see what that bill contains, but the H-2A program already allows for an unlimited supply of agricultural guest workers. Growers have complained that the H-2A program is not responsive to their needs. These complaints should not be dismissed out of hand, but the fact is that most agribusinesses operators have never made a good faith effort to use the program. Given how powerful the agribusiness lobby is, if they had spent their money pushing for a more responsive H-2A program, no doubt their complaints would have been addressed by now.

No one is arguing that farmers collectively are the “bad guys” as Navarrette insists, but many Americans do recognize the agribusiness lobby is not pushing for immigration policies that are in the broad national interest. The farms that use the most illegal labor tend to be large-scale operations and the most profitable. It is not small family farms who are driving illegal immigration and suppressing wages for U.S. farm laborers, it is large agribusiness operations. Those who oppose immigration reform that would raise wages for crop workers while only negligibly effecting the price of produce can in no way be described as the “good guys.”

ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA

H-2A visas

Updated: Wed, Oct 11th 2017 @ 10:40am EDT

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