Migrant labor in the US agricultural sector

The agricultural (farm) sector in the United States makes significant use of migrant labor, typically in the form of seasonal migrant laborers, also called guest workers. Due to the difficulty of getting temporary visas for work classed as “low-skilled” work, a lot of the labor used in this sector is from unauthorized (also known as “illegal”) workers. Proponents of the use of migrant labor have advocated for expanded guest worker programs that would allow easier legal passage for short-term work, such as by expanding the H-2 visa category in the United States.

Key points of contention

Restrictionists have voiced a number of concerns regarding the use of migrant labor.

  • Restrictionists have argued that migrant laborers take jobs from American natives by suppressing the market-clearing wage levels to well below those that Americans would be willing to work at. Restrictionists often ridicule the poorly framed pro-migration argument which says “immigrants do jobs natives won’t do” by pointing out that at a sufficiently high price, natives would be willing to do those jobs. The counter-argument to this is that offering such a high price would not be cost-effective for employers and they may instead choose to forgo the use of labor entirely, letting their produce rot. More on the general theory at the “immigrants do jobs natives won’t do” link.
  • Another point often made, specifically in the context of low-skilled agricultural labor, is that cheap labor comes in the way of technological improvements and mechanization. This is partly true, but there are a number of counter-arguments. More on the general theory at the cheap labor leading to a technological slowdown page.
  • An argument occasionally offered by restrictionists is that farm subsidies cause an overproduction in the US agricultural sector, so keeping out migrant labor may serve as a correction factor. This is a “two wrongs make a right” type of argument.
  • Some labor advocacy groups have voiced concern regarding what they perceive to be the exploitation of migrant workers who lack some legal rights and privileges accorded to US citizens and legal residents. A counter-argument to this (made in Michael Clemens’ blog post linked below) is that many seasonal migrant workers are repeat workers — they often choose to participate in the guest worker program multiple times, which suggests that their previous experiences were sufficiently positive.


Articles, papers, and blog posts discussing the theory and ground realities of farm labor in the United States from a broad perspective:

Policy analyses and news articles discussing the impact of the Arizona immigration crackdown and a similar crackdown in Alabama on agriculture in these states:

Creative solutions to the problem of difficulty of getting visas for migrant agricultural labor:

P.S.: Thanks to Alex Nowrasteh for suggesting some of the links and references on this page.

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