By David Bacon
(Editor’s note: This article summarizes the conclusions of a report by the Oakland Institute, Exploitation or Dignity: What Future for Migrant Farmworker Families in the United States? issued on Feb. 18. Visit www.oaklandinstitute.org/ for the full report.)
The intention of the U.S. guest worker program for agriculture, called the H-2A program, couldn’t have been stated more clearly than it was by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a speech to growers in 2019. He wanted, he said, “to separate immigration, which is people wanting to become citizens, [from] a temporary, legal guest-worker program. That’s what agriculture needs, and that’s what we want.
“It doesn’t offend people who are anti-immigrant because they don’t want more immigrant citizens here. We need people who can help U.S. agriculture meet the production.”
By separating the immigration of families, in which migrants become community members and eventually citizens, from the recruitment of migrants solely for their labor power, in which they work and then leave, Perdue was restating a goal of U.S. immigration policy that has existed from its inception.
In opposition to that goal, the civil rights movement among Mexican and Asian-Americans proposed an alternative and forced Congress to enact a law in 1965 that enshrines it. Immigration policy, civil rights leaders believed, should favor the unification of families and the strengthening of communities.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was a high point, however. In the years that followed, the use of migration as a labor supply program in U.S. agriculture has grown enormously. This growth has taken place under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
The Trump administration, however, made the growth of the H-2A program a priority. While ending family-based migration through an emergency executive measure, it issued order after order making the H-2A guest worker program more attractive to agribusiness.
The Biden administration will have to decide not only which of those administrative orders it intends to revoke but also the direction for U.S. immigration policy in general.
The movement of people from country to country, displaced by war, insecurity and neoliberal economic policies, is enormous and growing. The U.S. government, like all others, develops its policy within that context. The U.S. Congress and administrations do not debate the means for ending this flow of people, despite the often poisonous anti-migrant rhetoric.
Nothing can stop this global movement short of a radical reordering of the world’s economy and politics. Instead, political debate in the United States centers on how directly this flow should be used for its ability to create wealth for those who employ it and on the legal status and rights of migrants themselves.
U.S. industrial agriculture has its roots in slavery and the brutal kidnapping of Africans, whose labor developed the plantation economy, and the subsequent semi-slave sharecropping system in the South. For more than a century, especially in the West and Southwest, industrial agriculture has depended on a migrant workforce, formed from waves of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican and, more recently, Central American migrants.
Today, a growing percentage of farmworkers are indigenous people speaking languages other than Spanish, an indication that economic dislocation has reached far into the most remote parts of Mexico’s countryside.
Repeated waves of immigration raids and deportations are not intended to halt migration. Immigrant labor plays such a critical part in the economy that the price of stopping migration would be economic chaos. The intention of immigration policy since the Chinese Exclusion and Alien Land acts of the late 1800s is managing the flow of people and determining their status in the United States in the interest of those who put that labor to work.
The political fault lines that divide the U.S. immigrant rights movement are determined by decisions to either support this general trend in policy, and its political advocates in Washington, D.C., or to oppose it and create a social movement for equality and rights based in the communities of migrants themselves.
Those fault lines were set in place 35 years ago, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 criminalized work for undocumented migrants and resurrected the contract labor programs that were ended in 1964 with the abolition of the Bracero program. Current debates over immigration policy still must choose between these alternatives, and those choices will govern immigration policy under a new Biden administration.
The largest U.S. guest worker program, the recruitment of migrants by agribusiness through the H-2A work visa, has its historical roots in the earlier Bracero program of the early Cold War period, from 1942 to 1964. The exploitative conditions and vulnerability of migrants who came under that program are close to those of the H-2A program today.
During the Bracero period, immigration enforcement by a growing Border Patrol and government bureaucracy was used to create labor shortages, which then provided the rationale for the vast expansion of the recruitment of contract labor—the braceros.
Today, the impact of immigration enforcement is similar. Raids and the use of employer sanctions (prohibiting the employment of people without legal immigration status) are directly used to require the substitution of an H-2A workforce for undocumented workers.
The H-2A program not only provides a replacement for undocumented labor but also affects farmworkers already in the United States, both documented and undocumented. The program is used repeatedly to replace workers with residence visas or who are U.S. citizens. Legal protections against such replacement are ineffective, and the report details the virtual absence of enforcement of those protections by the Department of Labor.
Some of the largest recruiters of H-2A workers have enormous influence over immigration policy and its enforcement. With no limits on the number of visas issued annually, their recruitment of workers mushroomed from 10,000 in 1992 to more than 250,000 in 2020—a tenth of the U.S. agricultural workforce.
A system in which workers with H-2A visas are placed into competition with a domestic labor force depresses the wages of all farmworkers. Even mild protections that should provide a wage floor are easily swept aside, as the Trump administration’s orders did in 2020.
The growth of the H-2A program has exacerbated the existing housing crisis for rural workers and affected their living conditions. Although some states seek to limit grower access to government housing subsidies, other states encourage growers to use them to build more barracks for contract workers.
Guest workers are pressured to speed up their work, which then increases pressure on the other farmworkers around them. When H-2A workers try to organize to change exploitative conditions, the H-2A visa allows employers to terminate their employment and end their legal visa status, in effect deporting them. Workers can then be legally blacklisted, preventing their recruitment to work in future seasons.
Although farmworkers have been officially declared “essential workers” during the Covid-19 pandemic, the declaration did not increase workers’ rights, provide protection from the virus or result in a living wage. Instead, H-2A workers were particularly vulnerable to contracting the virus because of the structure of the program, in which they live in congregate housing and travel to and from work in close proximity.
The power of the growers and contractors using this program was clearly demonstrated by their successful effort to maintain dangerous housing conditions in the state of Washington and the lack of regulation for those housing conditions in California. The coronavirus crisis only added extreme health risks to a bedrock of the inequality and exclusion suffered by H-2A workers generally.
The gross imbalance of power between H-2A workers and growers makes it impossible to implement meaningful worker protections. Yet, efforts to expand the H-2A program have garnered political support among both Democrats and Republicans.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, the most important of these bipartisan efforts, would likely lead to half the farm labor workforce in the United States laboring under the H-2A program within a few years, five times the already large number of H-2A workers currently.
Intensifying a race to the bottom for all farmworkers in the United States, the consequences would be disastrous as it would likely limit any growth in wages, increase workers’ vulnerability to employer pressure, undermine their bargaining power and increase the already heavy obstacles to independent worker organization and unions.
Real change for H-2A and resident farmworkers requires upsetting the balance of power between workers and growers and the government that protects them.
The choice confronting the incoming Biden administration therefore is whether to expand an immigration program prioritizing grower profits over workers’ and immigrants’ rights or instead to reinforce the immigration system based on family reunification and community stability, while protecting the wages, rights, health and housing of farmworkers—the alternative advanced by the civil rights movement more than half a century ago.
David Bacon is a California journalist and photographer, and a former union organizer. His latest book is In the Fields of the North/En los campos del Norte (University of California/Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2017).