One reason the U.S. needs immigration reform is to ensure we have enough farm workers, says U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Rubio was part of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that unveiled an immigration framework in January. The framework includes a path to residency and citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants and would give special consideration to farm workers, among other groups.
Rubio has been shopping around these principles to conservative news outlets, including a Jan. 30 column on the conservative RedState.com. Part of his column focused on immigrant farm labor.
"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 wrote.
Rubio called for a "modernized agricultural worker program" that "allows our growers to contract the seasonal and year round labor they need legally."
The part that drew our attention was his broad claim that "agriculture has always required a significant workforce from abroad." We wondered whether it was accurate to make such a blanket statement without any parameters for time period or type of farm. In a related fact-check, we will explore whether the U.S. has a system for farmers to legally import foreign workers.
Over the past 15 years, about half of the hired workers employed in U.S. crop agriculture were unauthorized, with the overwhelming majority of these workers coming from Mexico, according to research based on the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey.
Rubio’s office sent us a few reports from government agencies and researchers that looked at the history of immigrant workers in agriculture. Most notably, there was the Bracero program, a program that brought in temporary farm workers mostly from Mexico between 1942 and 1964, peaking at almost a half-million workers, according to a 1965 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
While that sounds like a significant number of foreign workers, they were more common in some places than others. 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.
Historians weigh in about Rubio’s claim
We interviewed several historians who specialize in American history, immigration or agriculture. They said it is difficult to generalize about the agricultural workforce, because it differs by time period, location and type of farm.
"It's not as simple as you might think," said University of Wisconsin professor Jess Gilbert in an email to PolitiFact. "Certain types of U.S. farming use foreign workers, while others don't."
Fruit and vegetable farms used a lot of hired labor. "But these farms are a small proportion of all U.S. farms, the vast majority of which hire no labor and never have. This includes ‘family farms’ in most parts of the country, stereotypically the Midwest," Gilbert said.
Paul Conkin, a Vanderbilt history professor emeritus who wrote a book about American agriculture since 1929, 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."
Many of the professors 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.
Columbia University history professor Eric Foner pointed to the Reconstruction period when he said southern plantation owners tried to import foreign workers, including Chinese, to drive down the wages of recently freed blacks.
"Very few came -- why go to work as an exploited plantation laborer when jobs were available to immigrants in northern factories?" he said. "This is often the underlying reason for agricultural producers claiming there is a shortage of labor and foreign workers are needed."
William and Mary professor Cindy Hahamovitch said Rubio is on the right track, but that some of that immigrant workforce was forced to come here.
"In the colonial period most farm laborers would have been European indentured servants and African slaves, especially in the South. After the slave trade ban in 1808 and the Napoleonic Wars, there wasn't much immigration in the early 19th century, but some 30 million Europeans plus Asians and Mexicans arrived in the following century, and many of them would have done farm work."
Philip Martin, a University of California professor, co-wrote a paper about migration and farmers that Rubio’s staff cited to us. "Hired workers today are the majority of workers employed in U.S. agriculture, and most were born in Mexico," Martin said. "But especially during the 1930s, most hired workers were U.S.-born, like the Okies and Arkies of Grapes of Wrath days."
Rubio said that "agriculture has always required a significant workforce from abroad."
There have been certain time periods and types of farms that did use many foreign workers. But Rubio overgeneralized when he suggested that throughout American history, all types of farms needed foreign workers. Farms have also been owner-operated, with little need of a foreign work force.
We rate this claim Mostly False.