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Mexican migrants in US agriculture

Philip Martin discusses Mexican migration to the United States, their role in US agriculture and US policy responses to irregular migration.
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The United States is a country of migrants. The US has about 43 million international migrants. That’s about 20% of all international migrants in the world. And over half of them come from Latin America, including 30% from Mexico and about 15% from other Central American countries. So the way to think about it is there’s about 125 million people in Mexico, and 10% of all people born in Mexico are living in the United States.
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Mexico and the United States share a 2000-mile border, but there was relatively little Mexico-US migration until World Wars I and II, because during those wars, the US government helped US farmers and railroads to recruit Mexicans to fill jobs after soldiers went off to war. But since there is nothing more permanent than temporary workers, the mutual dependence of Mexican workers and US farmers evolved. The government tried to break this Bracero Programme in 1964, and roughly succeeded for about 15 years, from the mid-‘60s until the early 1980s. But then there was a debt crisis in Mexico and the Mexicans started coming north.
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The US, in 1986, approved a legalisation programme– the biggest legalisation programme approved by any government anywhere– in which 3 million foreigners got legalised, and about 85% were Mexican. And so that spread newly-legalized Mexicans throughout the US and unauthorised Mexicans to continue to come until the recession of 2008/2009. Today Mexico-US migration has stopped, but migration from Central America to the US is increasing.
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The US has about 155 million workers in its labour force, and about 5%– about 8 million– irregular workers are in the US labour force. So agriculture is a very small part of the US economy and the US workforce– just about 2%. But agriculture is the only major sector in which half of the workers are irregular. And these irregular workers present documents to employers that have either invented or false, what we call, social security numbers or identity numbers, or they present documents for someone who is legal, but it’s not the same person who’s going to work. Under US law, if the documents presented by a worker appear to be genuine, then there’s no penalty on the employer for hiring that person.
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And under President Obama, there has been no enforcement in the workplace. So that means irregular farm workers are just like other workers– they live off the farm, they often live in crowded housing, they carpool to work, and they usually work on just one farm during the year. They earn $10 to $12 an hour– which is above the minimum wage– but they don’t work a full year. It’s often seasonal. So that gives them low annual earnings.
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In the United States, immigration is a federal responsibility. So only the federal government can determine who comes in, how many people enter, what they do after they arrive in the United States. And the federal government has been stalemated for the last decade between some people who say the number one priority is enforcement, to stop the irregular migration, and other people who say the number one priority is to legalise the status of the irregular foreigners in the United States. So that’s the stalemate at the federal level. And state and local governments, some embrace the enforcement approach and some embrace the legalisation approach.
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So California, for example, embraces the legalisation approach, and allows unauthorised foreigners to go to universities, just like any other student, gives unauthorised foreigners driver’s licences and lets them get insurance to drive, while states like Arizona and Alabama do not give driver’s licences, and try to make it difficult for irregular migrants to live in the States. There’s really no trend, although Donald Trump has reinforced the enforcement side, and the terrorists attacks in Paris and in California have kept the enforcement push in the news, even though Hillary Clinton and the Democrats primarily support legalising the irregular foreigners.

Interview with Philip Martin, University of California, Davis, USA.

We asked Philip the following questions:

Question no.1: What is the context of US migration to Mexico?

Question no.2: How has Mexico-US migration changed over time?

Question no.3: What about irregular migrant workers in agriculture?

Question no.4: What is the policy response to irregular migration?

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