Immigration in the US


There are less than a million farm workers in the US and not all of them are unauthorized immigrants. Even if they were all unauthorized, 1 million workers out of a total labor pool of over 180 million is about 0.5% of the labor pool. With sufficient wages, those jobs would be easily filled.

It is true this would be inflationary on food prices so it’s not something that should be done foolishly, suddenly, or by itself.

But a proper comprehensive immigration reform package would include both amnesty/legal status for those already established here, plus reducing the future flow by actually enforcing our labor laws and substantially reducing illegal employment.


Also, the immigration debate in the US is skewed by the hateful idiocy of the right: the right is all “Keep the horrible brown people OUT!!!” and the counter-response is often “let everyone in!!”.

But “open borders” is just another way of saying “the deregulation of immigration” and since immigration is inextricably intertwined with the job market, if you deregulate immigration, you deregulate the job market, which I strongly oppose.

The proper approach IMO is reasonably regulated immigration, with reasonable enforcement of our labor laws.

Lastly, the “low unemployment rate”, “full employment” argument is not a strong one in my view until actual wages, especially real wages to the bottom tiers of the labor market start to rise. Once that happens, I’ll feel like our labor pool is close to tapped. Until then, when I see the number of people working for crap wages, I think wages need to rise.


From that mother Jones article I cited earlier, the farm bureau states that the number of workers needed to pull in the harvest annually is between 1.5 and 2.3 million workers with at least half of them undocumented.

I’m not sure what the discrepancy is in the number and what the USDA has. Perhaps due to the fact they are undocumented.

Certainly, if you raised the wages to some point, you could pull in workers from other industries… but it’s also likely that the food wouldn’t be able to be sold at the prices that would result in.


That one million figure is a yearly average. According to that USDA page, the offseason employment is about 800,000 and the inseason employment is about 1,200,000. Of course, every crop has different seasons, so I would guess that’s more of a generalized “during the warm months 1.2 million; during the cold months 800K” number.

I suppose it is theoretically possible for the number to be quite a bit over 1.2 million during the peak harvest weeks from late Aug to early Oct, but a lot of that employment is going to be people taking on additional temporary harvest work to make some extra bucks. I’m fairly confident that with sufficient wages, those jobs could be filled.

It is true that this would be inflationary but given the overall low rate of inflation, weak aggregate demand and low wages for American workers, I think a wage boost in agriculture accompanied by some inflation in food prices would be a pretty big net positive.

Also, on the issue of work Americans will or won’t do, I grew up in a rural part of northern CA which was primarily agricultural, with the primary crop being Bartlett Pears. Every member of my family including myself has worked in the pears at least 1 or 2 seasons. The ratio of non-immigrants working in the pear sheds has gone down a lot over time, but that’s b/c the relative wages have become really bad.

As an anecdatal example, I worked in the pears the summer of 1990 before law school, for $8 an hour. The next summer, I went home and looked for work in the pears but they were only offering $6 an hour so I took a painting job at $10 an hour instead. That $6 an hour wage was above minimum; I believe the minimum at that time was $4.25/hr. So in the summer when the wages were almost twice minimum, I worked that job as a young college grad. In the summer when the wages were 25% less and a better paying job was available, I worked the other job.

Obviously that’s just one person’s example but that pattern held true for a lot of folks where I grew up: real wages for low skill labor jobs have just crapped the bed over the last 40 years while the cost of housing, health care, and higher education have shot up, meaning that a lot of Americans literally can’t afford to take those jobs at such low wages.

Triggercut was saying this whole immigration issue is a numbers/economics issues which is correct. But the way to properly frame this issue is a wages issue IMO. And the most precise way to frame it is to compare wages to the cost of improving your chances in life: housing, health care and higher education. By that metric, the current minimum wage has about 1/4 the buying power (for housing, health care and higher education) that it did in the 60s. Yes, one quarter. That’s IMO ridiculous.

It’s true those low wages give us cheap lettuce but I’d rather have a society with expensive lettuce and workers living in dignity than a society with cheap lettuce and the kind of horribad condition that apply to many farm workers.

I guess I should add another bit of anecdata: I’m a workers’ comp defense attorney (employer / insurance side) in CA and last year I was representing a lot of farm employers (I changed jobs late last year). I’ve seen the work conditions and the payrolls showing the real wages and honestly, I am not at all surprised that Americans won’t do those jobs, at the relative wages being offered nowadays.


You realize that those poor people need to buy food too, right? So when food goes up in price, you are lowering their real wages.


My always angry racist neighbor is an unemployed, college-educated, middle-aged white guy who voted for Trump because “illegals take all the jobs.” He’s a pharmaceutical sales rep.

Throwing facts at this guy would be spitting in the wind.


True, but let’s do the math.

The range of labor cost in agriculture is 20% to 40% of the price of the goods. Let’s take the midpoint of 30%. So increasing farm worker wages raises the price of agricultural goods by 30% of the wage increase (in gross dollar terms).

Let’s double the wages paid to a minimum wage worker, from $7.25 per hour to $14.50 per hour. Meanwhile, the price of agricultural products has gone up by 30%. I am going to express these figures in relative terms of dollars per hour so that I’m not stacking percentages on percentages.

Agriculture as a sector is 5.5% of GDP. So if the low wage worker spends an average amount on agriculture, that is 5.5%. If you compare that to the starting wage, that means prior to the raise, the worker was paying a share of his or her income equal to 40 cents per hour for agriculture products. So the farm worker’s net wage after buying ag products was $6.85/hr. Now we bump the farm worker’s wage up to $14.50 and we bump the $0.40/hour for ag products up by 30%. The cost of buying ag products is now 52 cents/hr. So after the adjustment for higher wages and higher ag costs, the farm worker’s net wageis $14.50/hr minus $0.52/hr or $13.98/hr. That’s $7.13 per hour more than the $6.85/hr prior net previously earning, an increase of about 105%.

Of course, a low wage worker might spend a much higher percentage on ag products than the average American, spending relatively more on basics and relatively less on big ticket items. Let’s quadruple the percentage spent on ag from 5.5% to 20%. That means the pre-increase worker is paying 20% of $7.25/hr for ag products, which is $1.45/hr. So the net wage post-ag but pre-bump is $5.80/hr. After the ag inflation, that $1.45/hr becomes $2.00/hr. If we subtract that $2.00/hr from the increased wage of $14.50/hr, the net “real wage” is now $12.50/hr, which is $6.70/hr higher than the prior net of $5.80/hr, a 120% increase.

Basically, since the wage bumps affects the entirety of the worker’s income and the ag inflation only affects the portion of that income that is spent on ag, the net effect for the farm worker is going to be positive.

Now, there is a tradeoff here in that the other sectors of the economy would be hit with inflation, and the non-farm workers would not see an income bump. If the general inflation is too high, that’s bad for the whole economy.

Basically, the numbers matter and the magnitude of the changes matter.

In the bigger picture of political discussions, people often make statements that sound kinda numerical (is “mathiness” a word? if not, it should be.) People say “raising wages will cause inflation” or “raising wages will cost jobs” or etc. Yeah, so? What are the actual numbers?

I mean if you raise gross wages by 100% and increase inflation by 1%, that’s a huge net win for the low wage workers. If you raise gross wages by 100% and cost 1 person in 10,000 a job, that sucks for the 1 in 10,000 but it’s massively great for the entire group of workers.

The numbers matter. If, contrary to my above examples, wage increases cause huge spikes in inflation, that would be bad. If, contrary to my above examples, the job loss from a wage increase is much much higher than 1 in 10,000 that would also be bad.

You can’t just say “well bad number X would go up”. How much does it go up? What are the net effects? If you can’t say with precision, what is the likely range of outcomes? How do the current numbers compare to the historical numbers, etc.

In the big picture, real wages for American workers, especially in the lower end of the wage market are incredibly low, especially when compared to the stratospheric rise in the costs of the market segments that most affect long term prosperity (health care, higher education and housing).

The wage issue is important in the immigration discussion, but IMO it’s important to pretty much every economic question in the US right now.


If you do this, then that means you are going to have to make absurd increases in the wages of the farm workers, because they are already making more than that and they can’t find the workers to do it.

If you can get a job flipping burgers for $15, then you aren’t going to do back bragging labor in the heat for 20 or 30, given they won’t do it for 18 now.

None of this shit is gonna work. Those poor people are still gonna be fucked over.


Your math assumes that only poor people would be agriculture workers, and thus would see a net gain. There are plenty of jobs that will stay as $7.50 per hour jobs, and thus would be devastated by 30% increase in food costs.


Great post, thanks @Sharpe.

@KallDrexx: Indeed. Which leads me to…

Minimum wage is a complete fucking joke, and the whole low-wage situation we have today is an absurd and massive payout to low-wage employers in that we subsidize low-wage workers in a ton of other ways so they don’t die in the streets because minimum wage is such a fucking joke.

If your business can’t survive paying workers a living wage, it doesn’t deserve to exist. Less than $15/hr is fucking slavery in many parts of the country, and the overseers on these modern plantations should get Grant’s justice.


Just to be clear, farm workers make way more than minimum wage.


All of them? What’s the average wage? Again, a statement of “mathiness” it sounds like it’s a numerical statement but it’s so vague as to be meaningless.

I feel a bit bad about picking on Timex as he is engaging substantively but honestly so many statements that sound numerical or math-based but so vague as to mean nothing. It just gets me.

In reality, the median farm worker wage in the US is $10.49/hour which is actually 1 cent/hr less than the minimum wage in CA (currently $10.50/hr) although higher than the national minimum of $7.25/hr. The numbers from the US Dept of labor are slightly higher but similar, with a median wage of $10.83/hr for agricultural workers. And median means that half of the workers are making less than that number.

Also, I noticed the Dept of Labor was giving “annual” numbers based on the standard 40 hour week X 52 weeks (2080 hours per year) but the reality of farm work is that it is usually seasonal or at least semi-seasonal. Very few farm workers are going to get full time work during the cold season. Sometimes they can make it up by working more hours in the warm season but that depends on a lot of factors. My estimate is that the average farm worker in the work comp cases I was seeing last year actually worked about 1600 to 1800 hours per year rather than the “full employment” figure of roughly 2000. Using the median hourly rate of $10.49 to $10.83 that’s a ballpark of (1600 X $10.49 =) $16,784 per year on the low end to $19,494 per year on the high end.

So my estimate of farm worker income is in the ballpark of $16,500 to $19,500 per year. That is technically “more” than the national minimum wage, but is it “way more”?


The guys we are taking about here, who are temporary workers pulling in the harvest, are apparently getting upwards of $18/hr.


At 8 p.m. Wednesday, the family — the mom, husband and son who were leaving, and the daughters who were staying — gathered for a last photo together in their Oakland home. Then they formed a circle in the living room, along with three of Mendoza-Sanchez’s nursing colleagues at Highland Hospital, to hold hands and pray.

“Lord God right now I lift this family up to you!” proclaimed one of the nurses. “Lord God put your hand of protection on these girls!”

When the circle broke, Maria gathered her daughters into her arms, and said, firmly, “You promise you be strong. You behave yourselves. You do the right thing. We will be together again! I promise you.”

Her husband stood a few feet away, wiping tears from his eyes, shaking his head at the scene as Vianney repeated, over and over, “It’ll be OK, it’ll be OK.”

Hours later, Mendoza-Sanchez and her husband, Eusebio Sanchez, caught a red-eye flight from San Francisco International Airport to their native Mexico, after federal immigration officials denied efforts by them and Sen. Dianne Feinstein to delay their deportation.

So what if Mr. Rodriguez’s removal from the country will leave his family without its primary breadwinner? So what if he has learned English and been law-abiding? So what if MIT confirmed that he was a model employee who received promotions? So what if he was active in his church, and in his children’s’ elementary school? And so what if there is no conceivable formulation by which he fits Mr. Trump’s definition of a “bad hombre”?

Since January, The Post reported, more than 105,000 immigrants have been deported, 42 percent of whom had no criminal record. During the same period last year, the number was even greater — 121,000 — and the percentage with no criminal history was the same. But many more of those deportees in the Obama administration’s waning years were apprehended at or near the border, then swiftly removed. Now, with border crossings down, the Trump administration makes no such distinctions. Whether an immigrant entered the country last week, last decade or 20 years ago makes little difference.


It’s also seasonal work, so you get $18 an hour, but it’s not like you’re working 52 weeks a year, or anything close to that.


Sure, it’s why they tend to migrate around.


This is where i’m actually torn. Make no mistake, Trump is evil, but Democrats in this case are stupid. Current immigration policy that they seem to have is “don’t actually enforce immigration laws, because think of the children”. There’s a lot of hand wringing about Trump but in this case the assholes are actually just enforcing the laws, not passing new discriminatory laws (now they may be enforcing the laws in a discriminatory manner). If the laws are really unjust the solution isn’t to return to ignoring and not enforcing them, but change them.


Most Democrats, including myself,are in favor of “comprehensive immigration reform” where we provide a legal status for people already established in the US (which does include a form of “amnesty”) and also reduce the future flow of illegal immigration by actually enforcing our labor laws and reducing illegal employment. Many Dems also favor increasing the amount of legal immigration we allow.

However, due to Republican control of Congress, comprehensive immigration reform is not even on the agenda.


Yes, our current immigration system is a joke.
Some Republicans actually tried to work with Democrats to fix it, and then all those republicans got castigated by their party for doing so.

The problem is that ultimately, most of the GOP’s views on immigration are just thinly veiled racism with no rational basis. They just want to keep brown people out, either because they don’t think they’ll vote for them, or because they literally just hate brown people.


Exactly right. And this really comes down to a pretty profound philosophical difference - does a community have the right to say no to immigration? Is the right to immigration a human right, or a national right, or should it be managed according to resources and expectation of the community?