Agribusiness Reveals its Dislike of Deferred Action for Unauthorized Immigrants

As I and others have written over the past month and half or so, President Obama’s new Deferred Action for Parental Accountability initiative (DAPA) will shield from deportation and provide work authorization to unauthorized immigrants who have a son or daughter who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, if they are not an enforcement priority and have been residing in the country for at least five years. DAPA will give the potentially four million who qualify the full spectrum of workplace rights provided under U.S. law. This means immigrant workers will be able to hold accountable employers who commit wage theft or violate workplace safety laws, without fearing threats of deportation that employers may lob at them to keep them from complaining. It’s easy to see how raising the floor for unauthorized immigrant workers in this way will benefit all workers, raise wages, and increase tax revenue. But nevertheless, not everyone is happy about it.

I always suspected that the agricultural industry would not support deferred action or any DAPA-like program, but until now the industry had been relatively quiet about their position. My assumption was that—because unauthorized immigrants comprise such a large share of the workforce employed in agricultural occupations, and because ag employers directly benefit from having unauthorized immigrant employees who can’t complain about dangerous workplaces where pesticides are in the air and extreme, triple-digit temperatures are the norm—they would find objectionable anything that increased farmworkers’ bargaining power or that allowed them to move to better-paying jobs in other industries. Because unauthorized immigrants don’t have a lot of bargaining power and are mostly employed by bosses willing to violate the law, they can’t easily get a job anywhere else, which means they have to put up with the low wages that are on offer in ag.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see some truth seep out onto the airwaves, thanks to a three-minute interview conducted by Tucker Carlson the other day on Fox and Friends, which sheds some light on what the ag industry really thinks about DAPA.

In the clip above, Carlson speaks with Ken Barbic, Senior Director of Federal Government Affairs (translation: corporate lobbyist) for the Western Growers Association, a powerful industry trade association that lobbies on behalf of ag employers. The heading for the segment reads, “Who is hurt by President’s immigration deal?” and Barbic is mainly on the show to relay the industry’s complaint that the ag industry faces a shortage of farmworkers in the neighborhood of “15 to 20 percent.” Here’s the relevant part of the exchange:

CARLSON: “…why will [DAPA] make it harder for you all to find workers?”

BARBIC: “…it’s going to result in a number of workers that are currently working [in agriculture] potentially leaving the industry.”

Barbic is concerned that workers employed in agriculture who are issued employment authorization documents from the federal government via DAPA will suddenly be empowered to leave and find jobs in other industries. Why? Because the wages and working conditions on offer for farmworkers are pitiful. Barbic won’t say this out loud, but it’s the truth. Instead he alludes to the bogus argument that Americans refuse to work as farmworkers (even though almost 30 percent of farmworkers are U.S.-born citizens).

To his credit, Carlson probes Barbic about this, asking whether the industry can simply pay higher salaries in order to attract and retain U.S. workers. Barbic’s response is that “often wages in agriculture are well above minimum wage.” Barbic claims wages reach “$25 to $30 dollars an hour sometimes to harvest things like strawberries or dates or celery.” Really?! Auto factory workers don’t even make that much anymore. If wages for farm labor are that high, why aren’t workers streaming into fields? Perhaps because it isn’t true.

While farmworker wages vary regionally and for particular crops, there’s no public wage data out there showing that wages are that high for any crop in the United States. Even if we assume a relatively high piece rate and a highly productive farmworker at peak harvest times, such hourly rates would be very unlikely (Politifact debunked a similar claim in Georgia). The reality is that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “on average, farmworkers have among the lowest annual earnings of all U.S. workers, both because their hourly wages are relatively low, and because many farmworkers are unable to find year-round employment in agriculture.” Nationwide, the average wage for “Farmworkers and Laborers, Crop, Nursery, and Greenhouse” is only $9.65 per hour, just slightly above the $9 state minimum wage in California, where the largest share of farmworkers are employed. And at every opportunity, the ag industry has pushed to keep wages as low as possible.

It’s not hard to understand WGA’s concern from their perspective (however pernicious and self-serving it is). There are approximately 2.4 million farmworkers in the United States (but only 1.2 million full-time equivalent jobs), and about half of all farmworkers are unauthorized immigrants. The United Farm Workers estimates that at least 250,000 farmworkers could benefit from DAPA, while another estimate asserts it could be as high as 418,000. It is difficult to come up with any reliable estimates regarding the unauthorized immigrant farmworker population, but if these estimates are even in the ballpark, it would mean that between one-fifth and one-third of all unauthorized farmworkers could potentially be granted work authorization and the legal rights that come with it. This will also benefit U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents employed as farmworkers because hundreds of thousands of exploitable farmworkers will no longer be competing with them and driving down average wages in the industry.

Tough break, WGA. If you want a stable ag workforce, how about using those millions of dollars you spend lobbying Congress and contributing to the Republican Party to advocate for a reasonable proposal like AGJOBS? It’s a tough but fair compromise between workers and employers that allows farmworkers to get on a path to citizenship in return for years of hard work helping feed the nation. Instead, the ag industry chooses to lobby for expanding and deregulating the “fundamentally flawed” H-2A temporary foreign worker program that is already “characterized by rampant abuse of both domestic and foreign workers.” In short, rather than improve wages and working conditions, agribusiness wants to import guestworkers with fewer rights than U.S. workers and no power. And they’ll spend millions to get their way.