Immigrant Farm Workers and the U.S. Food System

The U.S. agriculture system is heavily dependent on immigration labor. One of the repercussions of increasingly hostile conditions against unauthorized immigrants has been a shortage of farm labor. Photo: Laura Elizabeth Pohl / Bread for the World.

By Andrew Wainer

Almost three-fourths of all U.S. hired farm workers are immigrants, most of them unauthorized. The U.S. food system—particularly fruit and vegetable production—depends on immigrants more than any other sector of the U.S. economy.

Immigrant farm workers fill low-wage jobs that citizens are reluctant to take. Attempts to recruit citizens for farm worker jobs have failed; without immigrant farm workers, our country’s production of fruits and vegetables could decrease. The Bread for the World Institute will address the complicated issue of immigrant farm workers and the U.S. food system in our 2012 Hunger Report, Rebalancing Act: Updating U.S. Food and Farm Policy.  

In spite of their key role in feeding the American population, unauthorized immigrant farm workers labor under increasingly hostile conditions. In addition to stepped-up pressure from immigration enforcement, immigrant farm workers’ unauthorized legal status, low wages, and inconsistent work schedule contribute to a precarious economic state. Due to their immigration status and socioeconomic challenges, America’s food producers sometimes struggle with food insecurity.

The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security bill (AgJOBS) was developed in 2000 by farmers and farm worker advocates to regularize the status of workers in the agriculture sector. Public concern about unauthorized immigration has held up prospects of enacting the bill into law.

Immigrant farm workers should have a legal means of being in the United States. The approximately 1.1 million unauthorized immigrant farm laborers in the United States do work that citizens will not perform and that farmers need.

The current system separates immigrant families and leaves farmers with an unstable workforce. In addition to fair enforcement of immigration laws, the United States needs a way to legalize farm workers and reform our agricultural guest worker programs to support both immigrant families and farmers.  

Andrew Wainer is a former immigration policy analyst with Bread for the World Institute.

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