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The National Agricultural Workers Survey

Chapter 4: Legal Status


In this chapter we discuss the shifts in the proportions of different immigration categories over the years of the study.

Summary of Findings

  • The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) legalized a very large group of farm workers. The vast majority of these workers became Legal Permanent Residents. Many of these newly legalized workers stayed in U.S. agriculture and many left.
  • The proportion of unauthorized workers rose considerably over the course of the survey; over one-third (37%) of all farm workers sampled during the last data collection cycle had no work authorization.
  • The proportion of newcomers entering agriculture has been very high in recent years. In 1994-1995, 18 percent of all farm workers were working in U.S. agriculture for the first time. Of these first year farm workers, 70 percent were unauthorized foreigners.

The Changing Proportions of Legal Status Categories

We pointed out in Chapter 1 that there has been a steep increase in the relative size of the foreign-born population while the U.S. born population declined during the study period. Since 1989, the proportion of U.S. born workers has dropped by 10 percent. The long-term trend toward a higher proportion of foreign-born workers on a national basis is well documented not only in this paper, but also in the report of the Commission on Agricultural Workers.1

There has been another important trend within the growing foreign born population. Since 1989, the number of newly legalized IRCA applicants and other work-authorized foreigners has been declining as a proportion of the population, while the proportion of unauthorized workers have increased. The shifting legal categories of immigrants since the passage of IRCA may be simply a nominal change which reflects an ongoing, long-term replacement/displacement of legal, veteran foreign workers by younger newcomer immigrants.

In 1987 and 1988, more than one million foreigners who listed their occupation as farm worker applied for legalization under the Special Agricultural Workers and the General Amnesty program .2 Most of these individuals spent two to four years as Temporary Residents, and then the vast majority of them obtained Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status, mostly in the 1990 to 1992 period. We call these the IRCA-applicant group. This group of more than a million workers had an important impact on a labor market estimated at 2.5 million workers.3

Because of the once-only legal categories introduced by IRCA and the transformation of the legal of a large group of workers in very few years, presenting the data in two different ways is necessary. First, we divide the workers by their status at the time of the interview, and then we describe them by the manner in which they became legalized.

The first categorization highlights the growth of the Legal Permanent Resident group (those who hold "green cards"), as the IRCA applicants and their relatives converted to Legal Permanent Resident status. It also shows the complementary fall off, of workers with Temporary Resident (IRCA applicants) or Pending (asylee and refugee applicants) statuses who had work authorization. The Temporary and Pending status workers fell from 35 percent to 4 percent, while the Legal Permanent Residents grew steadily from 13 percent in 1989 to 25 percent during the most recent period (see Table 4.1). These numbers reflect in part the movement of the IRCA applicants from temporary residents to permanent residents. Notice, however that the decline in the Temporary-Pending group is greater than the increase in the Legal Permanent group. The first declined by 31 percent while the latter grew by just 12 percent .4

Table 4.1 Percent Distribution of Farm workers by Legal Status at the time of Interview

Current Legal Status FY 1989 FY 1990-91 FY 1992-93 FY 1994-95
Citizen 42% 42% 35% 32%
Legal Permanent Resident 13% 13% 20% 25%
Temporary, Pending Status 35% 26% 14% 4%
Unauthorized 7% 16% 28% 37%
Unknown 3% 3% 2% 2%

There is a clear explanation of why the LPR proportion did not grow as much as the proportion of the Temporary and Pending status workers fell. Many Special Agricultural Workers (SAWs) and the General Amnesty Workers legalized by IRCA left agriculture. The increase in LPRs represented only those IRCA-legalized individuals who remained in agriculture. Although many IRCA-legalized workers stayed in agriculture, large numbers left. In 1989, one-third of all farm workers were IRCA-legalized, while in 1994-1995 that proportion had declined to 19 percent. A small group of other legal categories like asylum and refugee claimants (Other Work Authorized) also dropped from 7 to 3 percent (see Table 4.2). As these workers departed agriculture, a very large group of unauthorized workers entered--from only 7 percent in 1989, the proportion grew steadily to 37 percent in the 1994-1995 period. 5

Table 4.2 Percent Distribution of Farm workers by Method of Legalization

Method of Obtaining Legal Status FY 1989 FY 1990-91 FY 1992-93 FY 1994-95
Citizen 42% 42% 34% 30%
IRCA Applicant 33% 29% 25% 19%
Family Program 1% 3% 6% 7%
Other Work Authorized 7% 7% 4% 3%
Unauthorized 7% 16% 28% 37%
Unknown 11% 3% 2% 2%

The survey also shows evidence of a rapid influx of newcomer farm workers from abroad during the period of the study, and most of these first time U.S. farm workers were unauthorized. In 1994-95, 18 percent of all farm workers were in their first year in U.S. farm work. Of these newcomers, 70 percent were unauthorized foreigners.6

It cannot be shown directly from the survey data why so many of the newly legalized and other work authorized groups left agriculture during this period. It may be that opportunities for non farm work "pulled" them out of agriculture. However, the survey does demonstrate clearly that an extreme surplus of workers has existed throughout the study period and continues today. In fact, even during the peak month of July, less than three-fifths of farm workers are employed at farm work (see Table 4.3). During the period of the study, real farm worker wages 7 and earnings (see Chapter III above) declined. Therefore, it is equally as likely that the continuing farm labor surplus and the worsening economic conditions for farm workers may have "pushed" the veteran workers out of agriculture.8

By legalizing a large part of the agricultural labor force, IRCA temporarily reduced the level of unauthorized farm workers. In 1989, only 7 percent of farm workers were unauthorized. However, the tendency for new entrants to enter agriculture every year from abroad showed absolutely no sign of slowing despite the large legalization program.

Table 4.3 Percent of Farm Workers in Different Activities

JAN 28% 14% 28% 30% 100%
FEB 31% 14% 28% 27% 100%
MAR 37% 12% 26% 25% 100%
APR 46% 11% 22% 21% 100%
MAY 51% 13% 19% 17% 100%
JUN 56% 12% 13% 19% 100%
JUL 56% 12% 13% 19% 100%
AUG 53% 12% 14% 21% 100%
SEP 47% 12% 19% 22% 100%
OCT 43% 13% 21% 23% 100%
NOV 38% 13% 23% 26% 100%
DEC 32% 13% 25% 30% 100%

Data collected from October 1994 to September 1995. Sampling of activity performed in the month done on the week containing the 15th of the month.

1 Report of the Commission on Agricultural Workers, November, 1992, Washington, D.C.

2 The Special Agricultural Workers had to demonstrate that they had worked in U.S. fruit, vegetable and horticultural agriculture for 90 days during the 1985-1986 season. The General Amnesty workers had to show they had lived continuously in the United States since January, 1982. The IRCA-applicant farm workers were overwhelmingly SAWs.

3 See Report of the Commission on Agricultural Workers.

4 There was another category of method of adjustment which was also expanding among farmworkers during the years of the study. Workers who had applied to adjust their immigration status through family unification programs grew from 1 percent to 8 percent of all farmworkers (see Table 4. 2).

5 There has been a small increase in the H2-A agricultural nonimmigrant worker program. In 1996, the number increased to about 17,000 workers.

6 Most of the rest were young citizen workers 22 years of age. Sixty percent of the citizen newcomers were less than 22 years of age.

7 See data from the Quarterly Agricultural Workers Survey of the USDA.

8 One unanswered question is whether this displacement of unauthorized workers by unauthorized workers would have occurred had real farmworker wages and earnings not declined or if other adjustments in the labor market, such as employer provided housing, health insurance, vacations, and the like, had occurred during the post- IRCA period.