Farm Bill Failure and the Plight of US Migrants

Migration in the western world is widely perceived as something to be limited. Policies are designed to mitigate the ‘burden’ immigrants place on societies, arguing that new workers pull from an increasingly limited pool of resources and search for jobs in economies still recovering from recession. The United States Immigration Reform of 2013 reflected the pervasive nature of these harsh perspectives, and the subsequent outcry from labour groups, human rights organizations, and employers speaks to the legislation’s fallacies. The impact of an immigration policy characterized by caps, quotas, and restrictions has left industries with a depleted labour pool and labourers trapped in jobs with poor wages and little protection. These conditions are particularly evident in the farming sector, and are compounded by an agricultural policy that subsidizes large-scale, industrial farms. Congress planned to address agricultural reform alongside immigration back in 2013; immigration reform passed, the Farm Bill did not. A keen understanding of the ripple effect of immigration policy across sectors is critical to the well being of farmworkers and the industries they work for.

Image courtesy of Kevin Casper ©2013

Image courtesy of Kevin Casper ©2013, some rights reserved

The US Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) conducted between 2007 and 2009 reported that 72% of farmworkers are foreign-born and estimated that 48% of farmworkers were undocumented. Twenty-three percent of farmworkers had total family income levels below the national poverty line, and, at the time of the survey, 11% of workers were paid ‘by the piece’ receiving a wage based on output rather than hours worked. The 2013 reform banned this practice, yet with 48% of undocumented workers paid under the table, the act was a victory for only 52% of the workforce.

The reform addressed the agricultural sector with the revision of the H-2A visa program that granted an unlimited supply of temporary farmworker visas to be issued for up to a year. The visa does not include a pathway to permanent residency and bounds workers to the employers that sponsor them. Guest workers on an H-2A are “imported” by a specific employer and, regardless of any mistreatment, tied to the company on their paperwork for the duration of their visa. Unable to participate in the competitive labour market, they are left with no alternatives but to stay or return to their original country.

The guest worker program draws mainly from rural Latin and Central American countries with Mexico and Guatemala acting as the largest source of these labourers. Employers have criticized the H-2A program as a lengthy process in which employers must demonstrate that they can find no American citizen to perform the job, then they must cover the costs of transportation over the border, and a recruiting agency fee, all of which must be completed three months before the workers arrive. The extensive process to obtain a visa that will only guarantee a company a worker for a single season is largely disregarded by many employers, many of whom prefer to accept fake documentation from walk-ons. A reform aimed at curbing illegal immigration has achieved the opposite outcome with spikes in undocumented workers employed as farmworkers, now working with less protection in worse conditions than those who arrive legally.

The H-2A visa provides a less secure alternative for many labourers looking to cross the border. The temporary nature of the visa and seasonality of the work leaves most migrant labourers unable to secure benefits like Medicaid or food stamps, and NAWS found only two percent received Social Security benefits. With so few farmworkers claiming public benefits it is easy to dispel the popular myth that migrant labourers are a drain on public resources.

Beyond immigration laws, these workers are forced to operate within an agricultural system set out by the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is responsible for setting the government subsidies that structure which crops and farms will dominate domestic and international markets. The bill largely determines the incomes of farms across the country by inflating the prices of some crops and deflating others. One of the major reasons cited for the failure of the 2012 reform was the inclusion of a measure to end government inflation of sugar prices, a move unpopular with corn growers who provide the cheaper alternatives and benefit from these inflated sugar prices.

The Farm Bill largely molds the structure of an unevenly distributed agricultural industry by heavily subsidizing America’s large-scale industrial farms. The Environmental Working Group reported that between 1995 and 2012, 10% of farms received 75% of the available subsidies. Ninety percent of those subsidies went to corn, wheat, soy, cotton, and rice growers, leaving fruit and vegetable farmers with an even narrower profit margin. Between 1995 and 2010 apple farms were granted subsidies totaling of about $261 million, while the cotton industry received $31 billion. With the four trillion dollar supermarket industry demanding suppliers to provide at the lowest prices, farmers are forced to make up ground by cutting labour costs.

The effects of these subsidies aren’t limited to American borders. Inexpensive US exports displace small farms south of the border, perpetuating flows of migrant farmworkers to the North. The heavily subsidized prices of staple crops like corn keeps poultry prices low, providing livestock farmers with an abundance of cheap feed. The poultry industry produces a substantial surplus of chicken each year, with many of the excess sold to Mexico. In 2008, the tariff protection on imports was eliminated and American chicken products flooded the markets. The poultry farming industry was thrown into turmoil, particularly in the Jalisco region. Farmers were left to emulate the US practice of large-scale poultry farming, selling chickens as breasts, legs, or wings to hike up profits. Jalisco’s poultry workers were left without a job and, displaced from their communities, they began crossing the border in much higher numbers to work for the very companies that displaced them.

The Congressional attempt to overhaul the Farm Bill alongside immigration failed in 2013, instead maintaining current farming hierarchies within a new immigration policy context seemingly designed to provide large-scale farms with an unlimited supply of cheap labour. These migrant farmworkers deserve more protections than the H-2A has to offer. An opportunity to apply for more permanent residency in the US would give farm owners a more consistent workforce and farmworkers a more stable income and, in the case of mistreatment, the freedom to seek employment elsewhere. With the Farm Bill perpetuating a labour system that immigration reform sought to control, the case of immigration and agricultural reform clearly illustrates the interconnectivity of US policy decisions across sectors and beyond borders. An understanding of this interconnectivity is critical to the development of an effective policy framework for farmworkers, a group that should be able to afford to eat the food they pick.




Carroll, Daniel, Georges, Annie and Saltz, Russell. Changing Characteristics of U.S. Farm Workers: 21 Years of Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (presentation, Immigration Reform and Agriculture Conference: Implications for Farmers, Farm Workers and Communities, Washington D.C., May 12, 2011).

Environmental Working Group. Farm Subsidies: The United States Summary Information. (online) [accessed 13/10/14]

Dan Barber, 2014. The Third Plate. Penguin Press, New York.