Undocumented Farmworkers Would Get a Fast Track to Citizenship. Why?

Photograph by Mark Miller

Under the immigration bill the Senate began debating this week, the 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S. wouldn’t be eligible for citizenship until they’ve been in the country with legal work papers for 10 years—except for farm laborers. They’re getting a much sweeter deal: a chance to become U.S. citizens in just five years.

Why did the bill writers create a fast track for farm workers? Two words: job shortage.

Picking fruit and vegetables is as hard and back-breaking as it sounds, arguably one of the more physically strenuous types of work one can do in this country. It’s seasonal, so the hours are unpredictable, and the pay is low. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the wage employers must pay farm laborers varies by state and ranges from $9.50 an hour in Arkansas to $12.33 per hour in South Dakota. Many workers who are paid by the weight of the produce they pick actually end up earning less. In 2011, Hispanic tomato pickers in Alabama told me they earned $2 for each 25-lb. basket of tomatoes they filled. They were taking home $60 for an 11-hour day.

Right now there are an estimated 1 million to 1.8 million undocumented immigrant farmhands in the U.S. doing this work. The agriculture industry doesn’t want to lose them, because it’s hard to find Americans willing to take these jobs. That’s why the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, a group of growers, and the United Farmworkers Union cut a deal to shorten the path to citizenship and to stipulate that workers be paid the minimum wage. The theory goes that if farmworkers have more incentive to stay in the U.S. long term, there’ll be less chance of labor shortages at harvest time.

Frank Gasperini, spokesman for the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, explained this in more detail to me. If the reform package passes Congress, immigrant workers would get work papers that aren’t tied to their current jobs. Farm owners fear that means they’d lose their labor force to other low-paying workplaces, such as restaurants, where the hours are predictable and there’s air-conditioning, or to higher-paying jobs in construction. After the 1986 immigration reform deal, Gasperini tells me, “the ag workforce disappeared to construction and other year-round work too quickly.” The hope is that a short path to citizenship will entice people to keep working in the fields, he says. ”Otherwise, to be honest, most of us would move to less-seasonal work too.”

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