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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman February 18, 2013

Marco Rubio says we've always needed foreign workers for farming

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 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.

Rubio's evidence

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."

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"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."

Our ruling

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.

Our Sources

Miami Herald’s Naked Politics blog, "Gang of eight, including Rubio, to unveil bipartisan Senate immigration deal Monday," Jan. 28, 2013

President Barack Obama, "Building a 21st century immigration system," Jan. 29, 2013

Sen. Marco Rubio’s column in RedState, "Applying conservative principles to immigration," Jan. 30, 2013

Bureau of Labor Statistics press release, "Foreign-born workers: Labor force characteristics 2011," May 24, 2012

Congressional Research Service, "Immigration of temporary lower-skilled workers: Current policy and related issues," Dec. 13, 2012

U.S. Department of Labor, National Agricultural Workers Survey, 1989-2009

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Termination of the Bracero Program, June 17, 1965

U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Immigration policy and it's possible effects on Agriculture," June 2012

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Census of Agriculture fact sheet, 2007

Migration Policy Institute paper written by University of California professors Philip Martin and J. Edward Taylor, "Ripe with change: Evolving farm labor markets in the United States, Mexico and Central America," Feb. 2013

Rural migration news, H-2A, H-2B, January 2013

Pew Hispanic Center, "The size and characteristics of the unauthorized migrant population in the U.S.," March 7, 2006

University of Wisconsin professor Jill Harrison et al, Overview of immigrant workers on Wisconsin dairy farms, February 2009, H.R. 2414 AgJobs Act, Introduced May 14, 2009

New York Times, "Better lives for Mexicans cut allure of going north," July 6, 2011

New York Times, "New guest worker rules seek to increase wages," Feb. 11, 2010

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Seeking workers, Wisconsin dairy farms call for immigration reform," Jan. 27, 2013

McClatchy, "Seasonal farm-worker visa program frustrates growers," May 7, 2012

Interview, Jess Gilbert, University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture and Life Sciences professor, Jan.  31, 2013

Interview, Cindy Hahamovitch, William and Mary history professor and author of "No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and Global History of Deportable Labor," Jan. 31, 2013

Interview, Philip Martin, University of California professor and chair of the Comparative Immigration & Integration Program, Feb. 6, 2013

Interview, Eric Foner, Columbia University history professor, Feb. 6, 2013

Interview, Claire Strom, Rollins College history professor and editor of Agricultural History,
Feb. 6, 2013

Interview, Paul Conkin, a Vanderbilt history professor emeritus and author of  "A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929," Feb. 6, 2013

Interview, U.S. Department of Agriculture, spokesman Alex Minchenkov, Feb. 1, 2013

Interview, Laura McGinnis, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor, Feb. 6, 2013

Interview, Gary Steinberg, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Feb. 12, 2013

Interview, Brooke Sammon, Sen. Marco Rubio spokeswoman, Feb. 6, 2013

Interview, Craig J. Regelbrugge, Co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, Feb. 1, 2013

Interview, Steve Camarota, Director of Research for the Center for Immigration Studies, Feb. 11, 2013

Interview, Jeffrey Passel,  Pew Hispanic Center senior demographer, Feb. 6, 2013

Interview, Debby Wechsler, executive director of the North Carolina Strawberry Association, Feb. 12, 2013

Interview, Ervin Lineberger, North Carolina blackberry and grape farmer, Feb. 12, 2013

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Marco Rubio says we've always needed foreign workers for farming

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