The History of Migrant Farm Workers in California—Where Will They Go?

Few American industries are as invested in the decades-long political battle over immigration as agriculture. Paying low wages for backbreaking work, growers large and small have historically relied on immigrants from south of the Rio Grande. These days, over one-quarter of the farmhands in the United States are immigrants working here illegally.

This is how the growers will respond to President Trump’s threatened crackdown on immigration: They will lobby, asking Congress to provide some legal option to hang on to their foreign work force. They will switch to crops like tree nuts, which are less labor-intensive to produce than perishable fruits and vegetables. They will look for technology to mechanize the harvest of strawberries and other crops. And they will rent land in Mexico.

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download   French artist Jean François Millet’s famous 19th century painting, “L’Angelus”—a surprising resemblance. Both make statements about the nature of agricultural labor, one in this century, one in the other. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” as the French say.

 There is one thing they won’t do. Even if the Trump administration were to deploy the 10,000 immigration agents it plans to hire across the nation’s fields to detain and deport farmhands working illegally, farmers are very unlikely to raise wages and improve working conditions to attract American workers instead.

“Foreign workers will always be harvesting our crops,” Tom Nassif, who heads the Western Growers Association, told me. The only question for policymakers in Washington is whether “they want them to be harvesting in our economy or in another country.” If they choose the latter, he warned, they might consider that each farmworker sustains two to three jobs outside the fields.

Most of what we know about the effect of immigration on American-born workers is based on studies of what happens when immigrants arrive. Almost 30 years ago, the economist David Card found that the Mariel boatlift of 1980, in which more than 100,000 Cubans fleeing the island landed in Florida, did little damage to either the employment or the wages of the Americans they competed with.

A flurry of research since then has tried to find fault with that counterintuitive conclusion. Yet despite the claims from the Trump administration that immigrants have decimated the working class, Mr. Card’s analysis has emerged pretty much unscathed: With few exceptions, economists agree that even less-educated natives suffer little when immigrants arrive.

What if the shock goes the other way, though? We know less about what happens when immigrant workers are kicked out. But a series of studies over the past year are also coming to something of a consensus: Expelling immigrants does not open opportunities for workers born in the United States, either. Rather, the shock leaves them worse off than when the immigrants were here.

In a forthcoming study, Giovanni Peri and Annie Laurie Hines of the University of California, Davis, take advantage of an underappreciated fact of American immigration policy: President Barack Obama went on a deportation spree in his first term. The number of unauthorized immigrants detained far from the border — on the job, at home, in public spaces — more than tripled, to nearly 350,000 from 2007 to 2011, after which Mr. Obama changed tack to focus more narrowly on unauthorized immigrants with criminal records.

The researchers found that employment and wages in states like Arizona, where apprehensions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement surged, did no better than in states where apprehensions changed little, like Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The results suggest that in regions where enforcement intensified the most, the wages of American-born workers actually did worse.

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The argument of Professor Peri and Ms. Hines is intuitive. Raids and deportations are disruptive. They can scare away other workers — leaving employers scrambling to maintain production. When immigration agents raided a mushroom farm in Pennsylvania this year, they scared away workers in nearby farms — which had to cut their own production.

These sorts of events can increase uncertainty among businesses and depress investment. “The uncertainty and the disruption of labor market activities caused by the surge in apprehensions is likely to have generated the departure of firms and the relocation of production,” the researchers wrote. Think of California avocado farmers checking out plots in Michoacán.

One could argue that growers will eventually get over the shock of immigration raids. Once the dust settles, they may have more jobs at better wages for American workers. But the evidence is not promising.

Another study published last month by Professor Peri and two colleagues examined the effect of forced repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in 893 cities between 1929 and 1934. It was sold as an effort to reduce unemployment and give jobs to Americans who had been clobbered by the Great Depression. But unemployment rates for American-born workers were actually higher in cities that repatriated more Mexicans — a consequence that persisted until 1940.

As my colleague Binyamin Appelbaum has noted, a separate study this year looked at the end of the Bracero program in 1964, when Mexican farmhands who had been invited to work the fields in place of American men shipped off to World War II were asked to leave. It found that the exclusion of Mexican farmworkers “had little measurable effect on the labor market for domestic farmworkers.” Instead, growers mechanized some crops and dropped crops that remained labor intensive.

 Another exclusion seems to be at hand. Immigration enforcement has become increasingly severe since Mr. Trump took office. The Department of Homeland Security is no longer focused on criminal immigrants, as it was at the end of the Obama administration, and is casting a wider net. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said its agents had made 43 percent more arrests of unauthorized immigrants than they did last year. From Jan. 22 through Sept. 2, there were 28,000 arrests of “noncriminal immigration violators” — three times as many as during the same period in 2016.

It’s not only businesses that are brainstorming about how to navigate the changing immigration politics. The hotel employees’ union, for instance, wants labor contracts to assert that employers will not allow ICE agents into workplaces without warrants. Hoteliers and the union are talking about jointly training supervisors about what to do when immigration authorities show up.

From California to Florida, they are trying to figure out how to respond if, come January, Haitians lose the temporary protected status that allows them to work in the United States. In that case, “1.1 to 1.2 million people could become undocumented overnight,” said María Elena Durazo, vice president for civil rights, diversity and immigration with Unite Here, the hospitality workers’ union.

The Trump administration will cast these efforts as a sign of success: immigrants cowering before an American administration finally willing to stand up for its own.

But American workers might not want to hold their breath as they wait for the great new jobs to appear. Consider agriculture. There were 30,000 fewer workers in the industry this past spring than there were a year before, according to government statistics. Yet for all the complaints from farmers about labor shortages that forced them to pay more, the wages of field workers failed to keep up with inflation.

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The Bracero Program

Here is where the importation of outside labor to the United States for fruit picking began:

   

The Bracero program (1942 through 1964) allowed Mexican nationals to take temporary agricultural work in the United States. Over the program’s 22-year life, more than 4.5 million Mexican nationals were legally contracted for work in the United States (some individuals returned several times on different contracts). Mexican peasants, desperate for cash work, were willing to take jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. The Braceros’ presence had a significant effect on the business of farming and the culture of the United States. The Bracero program fed the circular migration patterns of Mexicans into the U.S.

Several groups concerned over the exploitation of Bracero workers tried to repeal the program. The Fund for the Republic supported Ernesto Galarza’s documentation of the social costs of the Bracero program. Unhappy with the lackluster public response to his report, Strangers in Our Fields, the fund hired magazine photographer Leonard Nadel to produce a glossy picture-story exposé. Presented here is a selection of Nadel’s photographs of Bracero workers taken in 1956.

    

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