Josh T. Smith: How to help our immigrant farmworkers

Governors are in a perfect position to leverage immigration for the good of their respective states.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Workers clear a pumpkin patch in Spanish Fork, Thursday November 3, 2016.

In an embarrassing event this month, immigrant farmworkers in Utah shared a video in which a prominent Utah farmer allegedly struck one of the workers for asking about his pay. The farmer has resigned a position with the Utah Farm Bureau, was arrested, and an investigation is ongoing. These are good developments that show a system where farmworkers can find protection from abuse.

But it is hard not to wonder what might have happened if there was no video of the altercation.

The event should concern everyone because immigrant farmworkers are indispensable for American agriculture. On a typical farm, 7 out of 10 workers are immigrants. Many farmers have simply been unable to find workers except through immigration. They turn to the agricultural guestworker visa program to prevent their crops from rotting in their fields. In 2019, half of California’s farmers, for example, said that they couldn’t find enough workers. The story is similar in other states.

Understanding why agriculture needs foreign workers turns out to be a simple story of American educational success. Only 1 in 10 Americans, ages 25 or up, don’t have a high school education or equivalent. It’s not that immigrant workers replace native workers — it’s that native workers are in roles that require more education or stronger language abilities.

In this way, immigration is a workforce stabilizer. It supplements the American workforce. Policymakers will see clearer on immigration policy when they realize that these aren’t jobs that Americans won’t do. Instead, immigrants fill jobs that Americans are overqualified for.

The dark side of agriculture’s reliance on immigrants, however, is that these workers are often undocumented and thus vulnerable to mistreatment. Government reports indicate that as many as 1 out of 2 workers are unauthorized. In recent years, it has been closer to 1 out of 3 workers. Because they are working in the shadows, they are vulnerable to abuse.

Fortunately, Gov. Cox has been a leader on commonsense immigration policy. In his new role as President of the National Governors Association, he is making the area a focus for collaboration among governors of both parties. It’s clear that deciding on how to protect farmworkers should be part of that conversation.

The root of the danger to undocumented workers is their legal status. There are two reasons America has so many undocumented farm workers. First, Congress’s inability to create meaningful guestworker programs. Second, farmers’ great need for workers in order to keep Americans fed.

The right policy response requires a solution to each of these. Congress should create a way for undocumented farmworkers to compensate for illegally entering and working in the U.S. That should include some kind of “speeding ticket” for breaking immigration rules. But it must also include ways to gain a legal work status so that they can continue peacefully and productively feeding the country. Then it should smooth out the wrinkles in the agricultural guestworker program. That means making the existing programs easier and creating more pathways for employers and immigrants to find each other legally.

The more legal entry options available, the less the U.S. will need to invest in enforcement in communities or against employers. Research shows that legal pathways make border barriers and agents more effective. Policymakers usually see them as substitutes, but should see them both as necessary ingredients for an orderly border.

Gov. Cox’s work with other governors should include pushing for these changes to protect farmworkers. Governors are in a perfect position to leverage immigration for the good of their respective states. They’re aware of how much immigrants benefit industries and communities—from sectors like agriculture to the universities that foreign students attend.

Immigration is a controversial area, but it is also a fundamentally American one. Utah’s history is intertwined with stories of migration in search of a better life. Our state’s future, and our country’s, will be similarly shaped by immigration. That future is bright if we keep improving our policies and how we welcome immigrants.

Josh T. Smith

Josh T. Smith is the Immigration Policy Director at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University (@smithtjosh). He also writes an immigration newsletter, Entry Point.