International Harvest: A Case Study of How Foreign Workers Help American Farms Grow Crops—and the Economy

May 16, 2013

Do immigrants create jobs or take jobs away? This report, published jointly with the Partnership for a New American Economy, answers this question for one important sector of the American economy, agriculture, by looking at the case of North Carolina farms. By analyzing data from North Carolina farms, Michael Clemens shows that foreign agriculture workers fill jobs that native workers do not, and that by filling these jobs, foreign workers benefit North Carolina’s economy and create jobs for Americans.

Many of North Carolina’s leading farms band together each year to apply collectively as the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA) for H-2A visas—temporary visas for foreign seasonal farm workers. By law, before they can secure visas to give to foreign workers, the NCGA must demonstrate that US natives will not fill the NCGA farms’ labor needs. The NCGA actively recruits native workers to fill the jobs and tracks its efforts to do so. Its data create a clear picture of the extent to which native workers want farm jobs and allow us to estimate the economic benefit of filling farm jobs with foreign seasonal farm workers.

Looking at 15 years of data from the North Carolina Growers Association, the report finds the following:

  • There is virtually no supply of native manual farm laborers in North Carolina.
  • No matter how bad the economy becomes, native workers do not take farm jobs.
  • Foreign farm workers create jobs for American workers.
  • The program protecting native employment is inefficient—the NCGA spends more money to comply with the immigration laws designed to protect American workers than it does on salaries for all of its American farm workers combined.

On the basis of these findings, the report concludes with the following recommendations for any future guest worker visa for agriculture:

  • The number of agricultural guest worker visas should remain uncapped or be structured in a way that meets farmers’ labor needs.
  • The number of agricultural worker visas should not depend on local or national unemployment rates.
  • Requirements to protect American workers should be modernized and streamlined.
  • The guest worker program should have the flexibility needed by agriculture’s employers and employees.

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