The Common Good

The Agricultural 99 Percent

It was a record year for U.S. farmers in 2011, with farm income topping $100 billion. This includes sales of $22 billion in fruits and nuts and $21 billion in vegetables and melons — crops that rely on immigrant farm labor.

But even as U.S. farmers prospered in 2011, those working on farms had less to celebrate.

The nation’s agricultural mecca — Fresno Country, California — had the state’s highest agricultural sales ($5.9 billion) and its highest poverty rate – 27 percent. More than 36 percent of the county’s children were poor, also the highest rate in the state. As one agricultural expert puts it, “High farm sales and high poverty rates often go together.”

Low wages, the seasonal nature of agricultural work, and, for many, unauthorized immigration status make it difficult for farm workers and their families to escape poverty. Farm workers’ high poverty rates aren’t totally attributable to immigration status, but it’s certainly one of the causes: 71 percent of all hired farm workers in the United States are immigrants, and about half of them are in the country illegally.

Poverty among farm worker families has decreased greatly since the mid-1990s, when more than half of all farm worker families were poor. Today 23 percent of farm workers nationally live below the poverty line.

Although many farm worker families have escaped poverty, their wages have increased slowly. Between 1989 and 2009 the value of U.S. agricultural exports rose 250 percent while average hourly farm worker wages increased 18 percent ($1.52) from $8.55 to $10.07. 

In addition to not adequately sharing in the profits of agriculture, farm workers face increased threats on other fronts.

In October 2011, the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced its highest-ever number of removals: 396,906 for fiscal year 2011.

About 55 percent of all individuals removed had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors. Although most of us can agree that all unauthorized immigrants convicted of serious crimes should be removed from the United States, removing those who are guilty of petty traffic violations, or have no criminal history at all, damages families and doesn’t serve the country.

Of ICE’s almost 400,000 removals for FY 2011, only 6,967  — or about 2 percent — were deported for crimes such as homicide or sexual assault.  

For the 45 percent of deportees with no criminal record, they were guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There are no easy answers to the predicament of many immigrant farm worker families. But any solution should include some sort of legalization.

Immigrant farm workers need assurance that an I-9 audit won’t destroy their livelihoods and legalization would facilitate immigrants’ deeper integration into rural communities, since they could then invest in their new homes and neighborhoods.

Legalization wouldn’t completely solve the problem of poverty among immigrant farm workers, but it would be a step in the right direction.  

Andrew Wainer is immigration policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute. This blog post originally appeared on the Institute Notes Blog.


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