This Saturday immigrant rights groups will rally in many cities to demand immigration reform. Some are asking the House of Representatives to pass a bill similar to the one passed by the Senate in June (S. 744). The Republican leadership in the House has refused to hold such a vote.
There is no question that we need immigration reform. Eleven million people have no legal status. Four hundred thousand are deported every year. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been fired because they’re undocumented. But as we push for reform, we need to look closely at what’s actually on the table. We need a reality check.
One of the most important parts of the Senate’s bill, and of all the “comprehensive immigration reform” proposals, is a big increase in guestworker programs. Employers demand them as a price for supporting legalization of the undocumented. But our history tells us that this is a very high price. Especially for farmworkers, guestworker programs have been a terrible idea.
Most media coverage of immigration accepts as fact the claims by growers that they can’t get enough workers to harvest crops. Agribusiness wants a new guestworker program, and complaints of a labor shortage are their justification. But a little investigation of the actual unemployment rate in farmworker communities leads to a different picture.
The labor shortage is largely a fiction. I’ve spent over a decade traveling through California valleys and have yet to see fruit rotting because of a lack of labor to pick it. I have seen some pretty miserable conditions for workers, though.
The wages these families earn are barely enough to survive. As Abe Lincoln said, “Labor creates all wealth”—but farmworkers get precious little of it. Farmworkers are worse off today than they’ve been for over two decades.
Labor Shortage a Myth
Twenty-five years ago, at the height of the influence of the United Farm Workers, union contracts guaranteed twice the minimum wage of the time. Today, the hourly wage in almost every farm job is the minimum wage—$8 an hour in California, $7.25 elsewhere under federal law. If wages had kept up with that UFW base rate, farmworkers today would be making $16 an hour. But they’re not.
If there were a labor shortage so acute that growers were having a hard time finding workers, they would be raising wages to make the jobs more attractive. But they aren’t.
In fact, despite claims of no workers, rural unemployment is high. Today’s unemployment rate in Delano, birthplace of the UFW, is 30 percent. Last year in the Salinas Valley, the nation’s salad bowl, it swung between 12 and 22 percent.
Yet growers want to be able to bring workers into the country on guestworker visas that say they have to work at close to minimum wage in order to stay, and must be deported if they are out of work longer than a brief time.
The industry often claims that if it doesn’t get this, consumers will have to pay a lot more for fruit and vegetables. But low wages haven’t kept prices low. The supermarket price of fruit has more than doubled in the last two decades.
Unions Make the Difference
Low wages have a human cost. Families live in cramped trailers, or packed like sardines in apartments and garages, with many people sleeping in a single room.
Over the last half-century, growers have demolished most of their old labor camps for migrant workers. These were never great places to live, but having no place is worse.
Today migrant workers often live in cars, sometimes even sleeping in the fields or under the trees.
In past years I’ve seen children working in fields in northern Mexico, but this year I saw them working here too. When families bring their kids to work, it’s not because they don’t value their education or future. It’s because they can’t make ends meet with the labor of adults alone.
What would make a difference?
Unions would. The UFW pushed wages up decades ago, getting the best standard of living California farmworkers ever received. But growers have been implacably hostile to union organizing. For guestworkers and undocumented workers alike, joining a union or demanding rights can mean risking not just firing but deportation.
Enforcing the existing law would also better workers’ lives. California Rural Legal Assistance does a heroic job inspecting field conditions and helping workers understand their rights. But that’s an uphill struggle too. According to the Indigenous Farm Worker Survey, a third of the workers surveyed still get paid less than the minimum. Many are poisoned with pesticides, suffer from heat exhaustion, and work in illegal conditions.
Give workers real legal status. Farmworkers need a permanent residence visa, not a guestworker visa conditioned on their employment. This would ensure their right to organize without risking deportation. Organization in turn would bring greater equality, stability, and recognition of their important contributions—not to mention higher pay.
Don’t Repeat a Bad Idea
But growers don’t want to raise wages to attract labor. Instead, they want workers on temporary visas, not permanent ones—a steady supply of people who can work but can’t stay, or who get deported if they become unemployed. This is a repeat of the old, failed bracero program of the 1940s and ’50s and of today’s H2A guestworker visa program.
The H2A program mandates a guestworker wage that supposedly doesn’t undermine existing wages, called an “adverse effect” wage rate. The highest in the country is in Washington State—$12/hour, $2.81 above the state’s minimum. In effect, however, it functions as a ceiling on wages for all farmworkers, since growers can replace them with workers at that “adverse effect” wage.
The Senate bill would lower that wage to $9.64. Some bills in the House would take it down even further. None of these wages allow a family to live a decent life.
With a temporary labor program, farm wages will not rise. Instead, farmworkers will continue to subsidize agribusiness with their low wages, in the name of keeping agriculture “competitive.” Strikes and unions that raise family income will be regarded as a threat.
We’ve seen this before. During the bracero program, when resident workers struck, growers brought in braceros. And if braceros struck, they were deported. That’s why Cesar Chavez, Ernesto Galarza, and Bert Corona finally convinced Congress to end the program in 1964. The UFW’s first grape strike began the year after the bracero law was repealed.
Today immigrant workers who already live in the U.S., like those who recently held a strike at Washington State’s Sakuma Berry Farms, are being pitted against modern-day braceros brought in under the H2A program. Ryan Sakuma says he won’t pay strikers more than he’s paying the H2A workers, and sometimes offers even less. Workers fear that if they protest, they won’t get hired for next year’s picking season, and others will take their places.
Farmworkers perform valuable work and need healthy conditions and security, not an immigration reform that will keep them in poverty. Giving employers another bracero program is a failed idea, one we shouldn’t repeat. Farm jobs that can support families is a better one.
While we’re out demonstrating for immigration reform on October 5, we can help the Sakuma Berry Farms strikers by boycotting the two customers who are buying the berries—Haagen Dasz ice cream and Driscoll berries. For more information, go here.
David Bacon is a California writer and photographer and was a union organizer for two decades. His new book, The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration, was just published by Beacon Press.