February 20, 2009 · The U.S. agricultural industry has long complained about a labor shortage in the fields. The work force is aging and it is frequently too difficult for new farm workers to get visas. So, the federal government has just begun implementing new rules to ease the H-2A temporary agriculture worker program.
At 5 a.m., nearly 10,000 Mexican lettuce pickers wait to enter the U.S. at the port of entry between San Luis, Sonora, in Mexico and San Luis, Ariz., near Yuma. It's a daily scene during the winter season, but Anadina Cardenez Alvarez is here for the first time.
She is part of a group getting their H-2A visas. It took three months and cost $400, but she says it was worth it.
"People have told me here you can make $50 to $70 a day," she says. "There, you can barely make $50 to $70 a week. That's a big difference."
On that day, though, there was no work. The grower needed only half the number of visa workers as he thought he would.
"Due to the economic situation in the country, the farmers in this area have planted up to 40 percent less," says Janine Duron, executive director of the Independent Agricultural Workers' Center, a nonprofit that connects workers with growers. "So there's been less of a demand for farm workers. And there was just about enough demand to be met with the local domestic farm workers."
In this case, local domestic farm workers means Mexican citizens with U.S. green cards, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. These workers could legally live in the U.S., but they choose to live in Mexico because it's cheaper. In the last few years, green-card holders have made up about 15 to 20 percent of crossers, according to one customs officer's estimate. This winter, he says, that number has shot up to about 60 percent.
Paul Muthart, general manager of Pasquinelli Farms in Yuma, says it's one more effect of the recession.
"These folks who would otherwise be on a roof or in a kitchen or making a bed are back in the ag field," Muthart says.
From Farming To Construction, And Back
Such is the case of Felix Valdez, who got his green card in 1985 when the federal government offered illegal workers amnesty. He worked in the fields, but then he found a better job in construction. That's the typical pattern for immigrants. But now he's back in the fields he once left.
"I changed because there's no more construction," Valdez says. "Maybe in March … Maybe."
University of California agricultural economist Phil Martin says what's happening now is not just immigrant labor moving back to the fields, but fewer immigrants leaving agriculture in the first place.
"During the Depression, a lot of Americans who had left the farm returned to the farm," Martin says. "I like to think of the farm labor market as a revolving door in a big department store. People enter, on average they stay less than 10 years, and they leave. I think that the major thing that's happened is that door is turning slower."
But that door may not be turning at all. By the time it's light out, the Yuma workers have been taken by bus to the fields. They start picking the seemingly endless rows of romaine, butter leaf and iceberg lettuce, stooping to pick the heads then using knives to chop off the root. It's obviously hard work, and Duron, the nonprofit director, says that's a problem. Most of the domestic workers here — the green-card holders — are at least 50 years old.
"And mostly with 30-40 years or more working in the fields," she says. "They're not able to produce as well as a younger work force, and there is no younger work force in the United States."
More H-2A visa workers will likely be needed when the recession ends. But for now, older so-called domestic farm workers and former construction workers will take the jobs — unless things get so bad that U.S. citizens are willing to move across the country for five months' work in these lettuce fields at $350 a week.