An Arizona city known as the nation’s “Winter Salad Bowl” for its production of lettuce witnessed its number of foreign agricultural workers increase by almost 33 percent in just three years. Yuma accommodated 2,858 foreign workers through the H-2A visa program in 2016, but that number escalated to 3,800 by 2019, according to The Washington Post.
The author of the article claims that due to a change in immigration patterns and increased border security in the area, farmers have turned to legal means like the H-2A program to hire workers, rather than their dwindling pool of illegal aliens. While this is a step in the right direction, why exactly are farmers in this border city relying on foreign labor? Yuma had a 15.4 percent unemployment rate in December 2018. That is three times the state’s average.
If employers still find it difficult to hire local labor, maybe the problem lies with them, not the labor market. Americans often search for jobs that will allow them to support their families. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, adults need to earn about $16 per hour to support the average family in Yuma’s county. Unfortunately, farm laborers typically earn much less than that in Arizona.
The average crop farmhand in The Grand Canyon State only earns $23,350 annually, or $11.23 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This simply isn’t enough for someone attempting to support a family in the state. However, many foreign nationals are more than willing to accept these jobs because the wages are still much better than what they could earn in their home countries.
One H-2A visa holder in the Post’s article said it all too well:
“The money is triple for me, and for some others more than 10 times what they would make in Mexico,” proclaimed Humberto Ruiz Silva, a Mexican national who crosses the border with his work visa every morning.
The minimum wage in Mexico is the equivalent of $5.10 per day. Even at minimum wage, Mexican nationals can make far more in the U.S. compared to what they would receive back home, so they are taking advantage of the opportunity. The federal government issued nearly 200,000 H-2A visas in 2018. Farmers appear to have an unlimited pool of foreign labor undercutting the labor market. Americans can’t compete when foreign nationals will work for far less than a fair living wage.
Farmers claim that they struggle to find employees here in the United States, but the reality of the situation is that they want the federal government to continue importing cheap labor. But then again, if the system is in place, why wouldn’t employers utilize it to maximize their profits? It’s time for President Trump and Congress to invest in the American worker and finally repair this broken system.