There is a major controversy regarding the employment of illegal or undocumented immigrants in the workplace. The term “undocumented immigrants” refers to foreign citizens residing in the U.S. illegally. Many Americans believe that undocumented immigrants are being employed in jobs that could be filled by unemployed members of the workforce. Many illegal immigrants are working in low-skilled jobs in sectors of the economy (agriculture, hospitality, construction, etc.) that American workers are unwilling to fill.

Callan peter
Extension Specialist / Virginia Tech Extension

Statistics regarding the number of undocumented workers in the U.S. are difficult to find. A 2010 report by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the U.S.; it concluded that the illegal immigrant population grew rapidly from 1990 to 2007, but has since stabilized around 11.2 million.

It finds that there were 8.0 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. labor force in March 2010. Illegal immigrants made up 5.2 percent of the labor force and 3.7 percent of the nation’s population in 2010.

Based on March 2008 data collected by the Census Bureau, researchers at the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that about three-quarters (76 percent) of the nation’s unauthorized immigrants are Hispanic. The majority of undocumented immigrants (59 percent) are from Mexico, numbering 7 million.

Economist Phillip Martin estimated that about 1.2 million, or 48 percent, of the 2.5 million persons employed for wages on U.S. farms are undocumented. The share of undocumented workers is highest in seasonal fruit and vegetable crops.


The purpose of this article is to illustrate the important role that the illegal Hispanic workforce plays in the operation of American farms.

The lack of domestic workers willing to work on farms is rapidly escalating into a critical employment issue in American agriculture. There are demographic trends which explain why illegal immigrants have become a significant portion of the workforce on many farms.

Opportunities off the farm, higher salaries, shorter work weeks and opportunities for advancement are major reasons that have contributed to the decline in the rural labor pool.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of people employed in agriculture and related industries (forestry, fishing and hunting) has declined from 3.422 million in 1970 to 2.134 million in 2010.

Currently, there is limited or nonexistent data available on the numbers of illegal immigrants employed in the greenhouse, livestock, landscaping and meat processing industries. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed that the number of total employed workers increased from 78.678 million in 1970 to over 139 million in 2010.

Mechanization has increased the efficiency and output for most farm workers. Starting in 1975, the National Agricultural Statistics Service of USDA began to publish the “Farm Labor Report,” showing estimates of farm employment by quarters based on the Quarterly Agricultural Labor Survey.

The author averaged the number of hired workers listed in the 2010 farm labor quarterly reports to calculate the average number of hired workers employed in 2010.

The average number of hired workers employed on farms and ranches has declined approximately 42.4 percent, from 1,323,600 workers in 1975 to approximately 763,000 workers in 2010. However, mechanization has not replaced the need for workers to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables or milk dairy cows.

Seasonality of planting and harvesting schedules has resulted in the fruit and vegetable industries becoming dependent on immigrant labor during planting and harvesting seasons. If fruit and vegetable crops are not harvested on a timely basis, yield, quality and marketability will rapidly decline.

A ready supply of seasonal labor for harvesting will keep producers from losing their crops if workers are not available during harvest season. A Department of Labor study estimated that 48 percent of crop farm workers were unauthorized in the three-year period of 2007-2009.

Dairy cows have to be milked and fed each day. Due to a shortage of domestic workers, the dairy industry has become highly dependent on immigrant labor to milk cows.

In 2009, National Milk Producers Federation conducted a national survey of 5,005 dairy farms with responses from 47 states. The survey stated that 50 percent of the farms surveyed use immigrant labor.

Furthermore, this survey reported that 62 percent of the nation’s milk supply (based on the farms surveyed) was produced on farms using immigrant labor. Due to declining profit margins over the past 30 years, dairy farmers either purchased new technology to become more efficient or exited the dairy business.

The larger herd sizes have resulted in a specialization of jobs on dairy farms. Thus a person’s job may be to do one task (e.g. feeding the milking herd and heifers, scraping manure, milking cows, etc.) during their eight-hour to 10-hour workday.

State-of-the-art milking parlors enable one person to easily milk 80 to 100 cows or more per hour. The person operating the parlor is constantly walking from one end of the parlor to the other attaching milker units to the cows.

Electronic milking machine detachers monitor and remove the milker unit from the cow at the end of the milking process. Although new milking parlors are highly automated, there are few domestic workers willing to milk cows. Consequently, illegal immigrants have filled this void.

The 2009 National Milk Producers Federation study estimated that eliminating immigrant labor would reduce the U.S. dairy herd by 1.34 million head, milk production would decline by 29.5 billion pounds and 4,532 dairy farms would go out of business. Retail milk prices would increase by an estimated 61 percent.

The agricultural sector is dependent on illegal or undocumented immigrants to conduct repetitive tasks in an environment that does not support career advancement to higher wages.

Due to the seasonality in agriculture, there is the need for a large number of workers on fruit and vegetable farms to harvest during a narrow window of time. Once harvest has been completed, a limited number of workers will be retained to complete additional tasks on the fruit and vegetable farms.

These issues regarding the employment of illegal immigrants are not new and have confronted U.S. policy makers and regulators for decades.

Farmers seeking to remain profitable in the face of a declining supply of workers, regardless of their immigration status, are in need of a timely well-reasoned policy regarding employment of undocumented workers in the agricultural sector. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request to .

This article was printed in the October-November edition of the Virginia Tech Farm Business Management Update .


Peter Callan
Extension Specialist
Virginia Tech – Culpeper County Office