Immigration reform too late to fix one big problem, studies say

Immigration reform aims to fix a migrant worker system that all sides say is broken. But demographic and economic trends in Mexico mean the era of cheap migrant labor flooding American fields is nearing an end, two studies say.

Guillermo Arias/AP/File
A Mexican worker holds workers petition forms as he lines up outside the US Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, before his working visa interview in 2007. Two studies say the flow of migrant farm workers from Mexico is drying up.

Two recent studies suggest that the immigration reform bill now making its way through the US Senate may not be able to solve one of the core long-term challenges it seeks to fix.

Beyond the weighty issues of border security and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the reform bill also targets America’s migrant labor system, which both workers’ rights groups and the agricultural industry say is broken. Agricultural businesses say there is not enough flexibility in the system to meet their employment needs, while workers say they can be trapped in unfair conditions.

Both sides say the reform measure, while not perfect, is an improvement. Yet the two recent studies suggest that economic and demographic trends in Mexico are already changing the dynamics of the American migrant-worker system. In the longer term, the increasing urbanization and prosperity of the Mexican middle class will dramatically diminish the abundant, very cheap Mexican farm labor that has flooded across the southern border for decades to harvest the crops of America.

“The longstanding assumption that the region has an endless supply of less-educated workers headed for the US is becoming less and less accurate when it comes to Mexico; and in the years ahead, it is also likely to become less accurate first for El Salvador and then Guatemala,” says the executive summary of the report released Monday by the Migration Policy Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The second study agrees with the first and connects the trend directly to issues at the heart of immigration reform.  

“This [trend] means that immigration policy will cease to be a solution to the US farm labor problem in the long run and probably sooner. In fact, we already may be witnessing the start of a new era in which farmers will have to adapt to labor scarcity by switching to less labor-intensive crops, technologies, and labor management practices,” according to the University of California study released in March.

Together, the two studies reinforce statistically what experts have been cataloging anecdotally since the 1980s, pointing to several reasons for the historic drop in cheap Mexican farm labor.

• As incomes in Mexico have risen, workers have shifted out of farm work into other sectors. Mexico’s farm workforce fell by nearly 2 million – 25 percent – from 1995 to 2010, and its per capita income now exceeds $15,000 per year. “Moving away from farm work as your income rises, reflects a pattern seen in many other countries,” says Edward Taylor, one of the authors of the University of California report.

• Fertility rates have changed dramatically – down from a norm of seven children per woman in 1970 to just over two today.

• Rural education has also improved dramatically. The average schooling for rural Mexicans 50 or older is 4.9 years, but for those in their 20s it is 9.7 years. “Better educated children eschew farm work in Mexico,” says Mr. Taylor.

These developments could help proponents of immigration reform dull some criticism of the plan.

“This study suggests that the level of illegal immigration will never return to its prior levels,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., referring to the University of California research. “That may serve to reduce the heat surrounding the issue and prompt Washington to address the problem with legislation for the first time in decades.”

But groups against immigration say the studies show the need to focus on other ways of getting US food harvested.

“American agriculture’s reliance on low-wage foreign labor has impeded capital investment in technology that would have made it more efficient and competitive,” says Ira Mehlman, national spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform. “There are machines that can do many agricultural jobs much more efficiently and more cost effectively. Our government should have policies in place that incentivize that sort of capital investment in efficiency, not policies that perpetuate exploitative inefficiency.”

More broadly, the research helps clarify the questions Congress ought to be asking, many say.

"This … raises a series of questions for policymakers and those in the agricultural industry,” says Catherine Wilson, an immigration specialist at Villanova University. “First, given the increasing trend of Mexicans moving into nonagricultural occupations, how can the US secure a steady and reliable flow of workers in the agricultural industry? And second, does comprehensive immigration reform legislation provide a time-sensitive and effective response to this phenomenon?"

The answers to those questions could push the US toward working with illegal immigrants already in the country, some say.

“The boom in Mexican immigration is over. Mexico's rural sector is declining, labor force growth is decelerating, Mexico is becoming an aging society, its middle class is expanding, and incomes are rising,” says Douglas Massey, a sociologist at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. “The critical need at this point is some kind of legalization for those already here.”

Others caution against making too much of the research right away, suggesting that the Mexican developments need to be seen in the larger context of events in the region.

“Things are changing in Mexico in ways that will fundamentally change the migration patterns that have been in place for over a century, but that doesn't mean things will end overnight,” says Lisa García Bedolla, chairwoman of the Center for Latino Policy Research at the University of California, Berkeley.

After all, what is happening economically and politically in Mexico is somewhat the opposite of what’s happening in other parts of Central America, she says. So while the numbers of Mexican workers may decline, numbers of workers from other Central American countries might not.

According to Pew research, 57 percent of illegal immigrants already in America are Mexican.

In the end, what the study does show is that border enforcement is much less effective in controlling illegal immigration than economic conditions abroad, says Bill Ong Hing, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

The bipartisan bill in the Senate allocates an additional $6.5 billion for border enforcement. “Those funds would be spent so much more wisely and effectively on helping Mexico with its economy,” says Professor Hing. “The notion of a strong border may sound appealing, but a strong Mexican economy is the real way to reduce economic migration.”

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