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USDA study looks at immigration, its importance to agriculture sector

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WILLMAR — In recent weeks, the emotionally charged and politically sensitive issue of reforming our nation’s immigration policy has been debated in the halls of Congress. And while inflows of immigrants of all skill levels and categories have long augmented our nation’s labor force, several labor-intensive U.S. industries, including agriculture, employ large numbers of foreign workers, not all of whom are legally authorized to work in this country.

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By Wes Nelson

USDA Farm Service Agency

WILLMAR — In recent weeks, the emotionally charged and politically sensitive issue of reforming our nation’s immigration policy has been debated in the halls of Congress. And while inflows of immigrants of all skill levels and categories have long augmented our nation’s labor force, several labor-intensive U.S. industries, including agriculture, employ large numbers of foreign workers, not all of whom are legally authorized to work in this country.

A recent study released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture highlights the significance of the relationship between immigrant labor and the farm sector. The study, titled “Immigration and the Rural Workforce,” was prepared by USDA’s Economic Research Service and included survey data from several governmental departments and agencies and emphasizes why immigration reform is a topic of extreme importance to U.S. agriculture, especially in terms of fruit and vegetable production.

The study also provides some interesting statistics regarding the employment and wages of hired farmworkers; the federal government’s H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program; and the immigration status of hired farmworkers.

** Hired farmworkers — Employment and wages:

Hired farmworkers make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers, but they play an essential role in U.S. agriculture.

According to the Farm Labor Survey by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, on average, 1.1 million hired farmworkers were employed on U.S. farms in 2012. This number has held fairly steady over the past five years, but is slightly lower than its level during the years 1990-2000.

Farm wages do vary significantly by task, crop, region and legal status, but 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.

Between 1990 and 2012, the average hourly wage of nonsupervisory hired farmworkers — both authorized and unauthorized — increased by 19 percent, reaching $10.80 per hour in 2012. However, this increase was insufficient to narrow the gap between farm and nonfarm wages, on average.

Hired farmworkers are one of the few categories of predominantly manual workers that did not suffer large employment losses during the economic recession of 2007-2009. Employment of hired farm laborers, supervisors and managers actually stabilized in 2008 and rose somewhat in 2009 and 2010, after declining for much of the first decade of the 21st century.

** The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program:

The federal government’s H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program provides a legal means to bring foreign-born workers to the United States to perform seasonal farm labor on a temporary basis. Employers must demonstrate, and the U.S. Department of Labor must certify, that efforts to recruit U.S. workers were not successful.

Employers must also provide housing and pay the higher of the applicable state or federal minimum wage, the prevailing wage in that region and occupation, or the regional average wage provided by USDA’s Farm Labor Survey, which is $11.30 per hour for Minnesota.

Employment under the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program has accounted for less than 5 percent of the hired farm work force in recent years. During the 2012 fiscal year, there were 83,579 positions certified on the H-2A program. During the previous five fiscal years, this number has ranged from 66,000 and 89,000.

** Legal status of hired farmworkers:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey provides information about the immigration status of hired crop farmworkers, but does not cover the livestock sector for which no similar data are available.

Of those crop workers surveyed between 2007 and 2009, 71 percent were foreign born — 67 percent in Mexico and 4 percent elsewhere. Of the crop workers surveyed, 48 percent indicated that they were not legally authorized to work in the United States, down slightly from the peak of 54 percent during the years 1999-2001.

To view the entire findings provided by this study, visit www.ers.usda.gov.

Hispanic, women farmer claims period extended to May 1

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced an extension of the voluntary claims process for Hispanic and women farmers who allege discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in past decades. All claims must now be filed by May 1.

The process offers a voluntary alternative to litigation for each Hispanic or female farmer who can prove that USDA denied their application for a loan or loan servicing assistance for discriminatory reasons between the years 1981 and 2000.

As announced in February 2011, the voluntary claims process will make available at least $1.33 billion for cash awards and tax relief payments, plus up to $160 million in farm debt relief, to eligible Hispanic and women farmers. There are no filing fees to participate in the program.

To learn more about the claims process, or to register for a claims package, call 1-888-508-4429 or visit the website www.farmerclaims.gov.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.

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