Nearly half of all farmworkers in New Jersey, Washington State, and Idaho are undocumented, a new Pew Research Center study found. Culled from 2012 government data, the state-by-state breakdown provides a glimpse into labor trends among undocumented workers, who are mostly concentrated in the low-skilled service, production and construction occupations.
The study found that 44 percent of farmworkers in Nevada and Washington are undocumented, while 43 percent of farmworkers in Idaho are undocumented. Nationally, Pew found that about 26 percent of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants. Undocumented workers make up an even higher percentage of seasonal workers — more than half of the 2.5 million, according to Farmworker Justice.
About 85 percent of fruits and vegetables are hand-picked by farmworkers and they remain one of the most vulnerable workers at risk for occupational illnesses and injuries. Twenty farmworkers in Washington state became ill last year after being exposed to pesticide drift from a neighboring field, causing neurological symptoms, stomach problems, eye irritation, and respiratory issues. Farms may not provide the appropriate gear or equipment to work around pesticides, which partially contributes to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctors diagnosing “between 10,000 and 20,000 farmworkers with pesticide poisonings each year,” an Environmental Protection Agency press release stated.
But without undocumented farmworkers, fruits and vegetables will rot in the fields as they did in 2010 after the passage of Georgia’s anti-immigrant laws. Apples are a $1.5 billion-a-year industry in Washington State, where growers have been dealt with a series of picker shortages over the past four years in part due to strong anti-immigrant tensions in agricultural communities. One orchardist recalled that only five workers remained of the 149 people that were referred to him earlier in the season, the Seattle Times reported.
Idaho, the third largest dairy state behind California and Wisconsin, relies on undocumented farmworkers to work the long hours in its $3.25 billion dairy industry. A lobbyist for Idaho’s dairy industry estimated that the workforce consisted of “probably about 70 percent foreign-born labor,” while Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) put the number closer to 90 percent. But like other owners in the agricultural industry, dairy farm owners face worker shortages. One dairy farm owner complained that domestic workers are hard to find because “people in the domestic labor pool don’t have the skills [the owner] needs” and those workers are harder to hire and retain. He also said that domestic workers “last maybe one, two, three days at the most,” KTVB reported.
While farms, like other businesses in America, are required to use legal workers, the Salt Lake City Tribune reported that “many small farms do not have the ability to use the federal E-Verify system to check [the] immigration status of applicants. Many farmworkers seeking a job present some form of identification making them appear legal, and farmers worry that privacy laws may prohibit them from challenging them too much.” Immigration statuses may also slip through the cracks because farms might contract out migrant crews that include undocumented workers.
One of the biggest barriers that farms come across when they hire immigrant laborers through the H-2A temporary worker visa program, which has no annual visa cap, is that it takes a long time and expensive. According to a 2013 Brookings Institute report, “only ten percent of farm jobs are estimated to be filled through the H-2A program, while 55 percent of farmworkers are estimated to be working without legal status.”
Overall, the Pew study found that about 62 percent of undocumented immigrant workers are concentrated in lower-skill jobs, nearly twice as many as U.S.-born workers, the study found. The vast majority of undocumented workers worked in farming, followed by workers in cleaning and maintenance, and construction.