Fact check: Sen. Marco Rubio says we’ve always needed foreign workers for farming

02/25/2013 6:10 PM

02/25/2013 6:12 PM

One reason the U.S. needs immigration reform is to bring in more farm workers, says U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Rubio is supporting an immigration proposal unveiled last month by a bipartisan group of senators.

Rubio has been defending his framework to conservative audiences, including a Jan. 30 column for the website RedState.com.

“Agriculture has always required a significant workforce from abroad, but we do not have a system through which growers and dairies can bring a workforce legally into the U.S.,” Rubio said.

We decided to check his history, as well as if there’s a system for bringing in workers now.

Foreign workers

Over the past 15 years, about half of hired workers employed in U.S. crop agriculture were unauthorized, according to research based on the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey.

Rubio’s office sent us reports from government agencies and researchers about the history of immigrant workers in agriculture.

Most notably, there was the Bracero program, which brought in temporary farm workers mostly from Mexico between 1942 and 1964, peaking at almost a half-million workers.

Braceros primarily farmed vegetables, fruits, cotton and sugar beets, and they were concentrated in seven states: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan and Texas. By the 1960s, mechanization reduced the need for these workers for some crops.

We interviewed historians who said it is difficult to generalize about the agricultural workforce, because it differs by time period, location and type of farm.

Paul Conkin, a Vanderbilt history professor emeritus, said that Rubio’s claim “is either completely wrong or misleading.”

“Through most of our agricultural history, the workforce largely consisted of farm owners, family members, or one or two hired hands from the neighborhood,” he said. “Only since World War II have migratory workers become a major component of farm labor.”

Several of the historians we interviewed noted that in the South, farms relied on slave labor and later sharecroppers, and many of those people were born in the United States.

System in place?

As for the other part of Rubio’s claim, the United States does have a system to allow farmers to hire seasonal workers: the H-2A visa program. But it has been widely criticized as inadequate.

Farmers apply for certification from the Labor Department to ensure that U.S. workers are not available. Employers then submit a petition to the Department of Homeland Security to bring in foreign workers.

Foreign workers then apply for visas from the State Department. Employers must meet a list of requirements, including providing workers with housing, transportation and workers’ compensation insurance.

The number of H-2A visas has soared from about 6,500 in 1992 to about 55,400 H-2A visas issued in 2011, based on preliminary data.

Despite that growth, the program is small relative to total farm employment. For example in 2007, (the most recent Census of Agriculture from the USDA) there were about 2.6 million hired farm workers and about 50,800 H-2A visas granted.

“Critics of the H-2A program cite the low levels of participation as evidence of the program’s inadequacy to meet the needs of U.S. agricultural employers,” the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said. “Others, however, attribute the program’s low utilization to the availability of unauthorized workers, who are willing to work for lower wages than legal workers.”

Many farm groups and a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., have complained that the process is too difficult and doesn’t provide enough workers.

Our ruling

In fact-checking Rubio’s comments, we found that he over-generalized when he suggested that throughout American history, all types of farms needed foreign workers. Also, contrary to Rubio’s claim, there actually is a system for growers to legally hire foreign workers.

However, many farmers have complained that the visa program is inadequate, cumbersome and in dire need of a makeover. Overall, we rate his statement Mostly False.

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