Migrant workers play key role in Utah’s agriculture industry



A sign in front of the Southside Presbyterian Church in South Tucson, Arizona, indicates day laborers who are living illegally in the country are available for hire. (Dani Jardine)

Editor’s note: Immigration has been a political boondoggle for at least two decades in the United States. Congress has yet to come up with a system that will successfully address the complexities, and President Trump has taken some decisions into his own hands. Third in a series.

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Debbie Cloward’s grandfather and father owned a fruit farm when she was a young girl. She remembers cherry harvest season always included a visit from immigration enforcement services. Agents would come during the harvest to pick up people who were living in the country illegally and deport them, and cherries would still be left on the trees.

In the past 60 years, the conversation surrounding the workforce of people living in the country illegally has become a hot topic within immigration policy and migrant worker programs in the United States.

Migrant workers are seasonal or temporary laborers guaranteed visas to spend a period of time working in the U.S. They are not legal residents or citizens; they are required to return to their home countries after their designated work period.

BYU Mexican-American history professor Ignacio Garcia said legal migrant workers are the basis of agricultural labor in America today. “American agriculture would not have survived without the Mexican labor.”

Paul Schlegel, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s managing director of public policy and economics, agreed temporary workers play an important role in America’s lengthy agricultural history.

“Historically, if you look at agriculture, it goes back generations, if not centuries, especially in the Southwest,” Schlegel said. “The flow of labor across our borders has been fairly common. … There’s a long history of involvement of foreign-born laborers in U.S. agriculture.”

The same is true of Utah; the state’s history with migrant workers dates back about 100 years.

Since the early 1900s, Utah has drawn in migrants to work in agriculture as well as mines and railroads. Aside from these industries, Utah didn’t have many opportunities for laborers.

Garcia referred to Utah as a “comfort station,” or rest area, for migrant workers because the state falls between the Southwest, where laborers from Central and South America would enter the country, and the Northwest, where various crops and opportunities for laborers abounded.

The need for migrant workers

BYU history professor and Provo City’s Agriculture Commissioner Shawn Miller said Utah is the most food-vulnerable state in the nation, meaning the state relies on homegrown food, because the travel time to get food from other states is comparatively longer.

But without a proper labor force, Utah wouldn’t be able to sustain its ever-growing population, which is expected to double by the year 2050, according to the Utah Foundation.

“Migrant workers are huge,” Miller said. “They play a really big role in providing labor. They’re still important here in Utah. Some of the people I talk to are migrants or the children of migrants who still love agriculture and are looking to buy land. There is that tradition, and I think that was sort of the major draw for migrants into Utah at a certain point.”

Developments in technology and mechanization create an air of uncertainty surrounding the future of migrant workers. However, Cloward and Garcia agree there are jobs in the agriculture industry that can only be done by hand. Therefore, a need for laborers in the U.S. will continue.

Agricultural migrant workers are granted visas under the H-2A program through the U.S. Department of Labor to provide American farmers with a legal workforce. Non-agricultural temporary workers receive H-2B visas to work in other industries.

Today, Utah’s agriculture sector is not the top industry for migrant laborers. Seasonal labor is necessary to sustain agriculture, but land development has caused the amount of farmland to shrink in Utah. This is evidenced by the amount of agriculture laborers in comparison to other industries.

In 2016, 1,166 temporary positions in landscaping were certified with the Office of Foreign Labor Certification, compared to 934 certified temporary positions across all occupations within agriculture.

Without the help of migrant workers, farms will not be able to afford high operating costs and are more likely to sell their land to developers, according to Miller.

Matt Hargreaves, the Utah Farm Bureau Federation’s vice president of communications, does not believe the contribution of migrant laborers to be negative, considering most of Utah’s agricultural workforce is made up of H-2A workers.

“To counter the argument that some feel this takes away jobs from local residents, that’s just not true,” Hargreaves said. “For one, these farmers need to advertise the jobs in newspapers in-state and three to four surrounding states, and give the job to local citizens if they apply. It just doesn’t happen.”

Cloward is now a farm manager for Allred Orchards in Payson. She said the family business has been utilizing the H-2A program since 2011. They advertise in Utah, California, Arizona and New Mexico looking for laborers. However, the farm never receives much interest by way of local advertising.

Allred Orchards is owned and operated by members of the family. They have an additional workforce of eight non-English-speaking workers with green cards or permanent resident cards, as well as the men they hire through H-2A. Similar to other farms and businesses in need of temporary workers, Allred Orchards has the same group of H-2A workers come back every year for harvest and pruning seasons.

Cloward said their relationships with these laborers are reminiscent of family because the workers leave their own families to earn money in the U.S.

Dani Jardine
Allred Orchards farm manager Debbie Cloward shares a photo of a migrant worker posing with her parents. (Dani Jardine)

“We love the guys that come,” Cloward said. “Can’t wait to see them. Their sacrifices are huge. To be away from your family for eight or nine months out of the year? They’re just awesome guys. We totally appreciate that we do get the same guys every year.”

The legal workings of the H-2A program are in place to provide a smoother and safer experience for employers and laborers. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks with allowing a migrant workforce into the country.

Entering — or staying — illegally

Three million people work in the U.S. agricultural sector, according to Schlegel. Of those, only a third are formally hired to work. The other two thirds are farm operators and their unpaid family members.

Schlegel estimates more than half of the 1 million people hired to work are in the country illegally or unauthorized to work in the U.S. Mass deportation of undocumented workers poses a large risk for the future of the agriculture industry.

A large percentage of people living in the U.S. illegally are likely those who have overstayed their visa request, according to Garcia. This has been a problem throughout the history of guest workers in the U.S.

An immigrant is more likely to remain in the U.S. successfully by overstaying a visa compared to other forms of illegal entry, such as crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.

“When the (first generations of) migrant workers were coming, they were making money, sending it home, wanting to go back home and build a little ranch or business,” Garcia said. “Immigration law made it so much more difficult to come because they were not legal, many of them. Some of them were, but many of them weren’t. Once the contractual agreements ended, they were all going to be illegal, so people decided, ‘I’m going to have to stay.’”

Stricter immigration laws led to migrant workers overstaying their visas as well as bringing their families with them to the U.S., according to Garcia.

As immigration continues to be a hot topic in the U.S., Cloward said farmers will support the legal authority through H-2A and its strict guidelines, despite being difficult at times for the growers themselves.

“We will have to continue this program, and I don’t know where the president (Donald Trump) stands on this,” Cloward said. “I know the men are concerned as he clamps down on a border wall and as he works on pathways to citizenship. The H-2A program has never been and will never be a pathway to citizenship. But it will help agriculture.”

As for migrant workers, they will continue to come to the U.S. seeking opportunity, whether legally or illegally. They not only sustain the agricultural industry but they also keep the American dream alive. For many U.S. farmers, that dream is harder to maintain, according to Garcia.

“Most (migrants) are looking for economic stability and safety for their families,” Garcia said. “That’s what they mostly are looking for. American society still represents that. There’s still the notion that if you work hard, you can actually make something.”

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