Agricultural labor reform that features immigration enforcement without a pathway to legalization for undocumented workers will raise food prices and wreak havoc on the U.S. fruit and vegetable sector, according to a study commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“Over five years, an enforcement-only approach would lead to losses in farm income large enough to trigger large scale restructuring of the sector, higher food prices, and greater dependence on imported products.” Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a news release.

The February 2014 study , conducted by World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services, considered three options to immigration reform:


  • Enforcement only;
  • Enforcement plus a pathway to legalization; and
  • Enforcement plus a pathway to legalization and an agricultural guest worker program.


The study found that the best scenario for farm labor reform both for consumers and farmers includes immigration enforcement, a redesigned guest worker program and the opportunity for skilled laborers currently working in agriculture to earn an adjustment of status. Under that scenario, there would be little to no effect on food prices, and the effect on farm income would be less than 1%.

In contrast, the study reported that immigration reform focused only on enforcement will, over five years, hike food prices 5% to 6% and cut the nation’s food and fiber production by as much as $60 billion.

Implementing enforcement only provisions with no pathway to citizenship could result in the loss of 50% of the farm workforce, according to the study. The undocumented component of the farm workforce is estimated at 500,000, according to the study. By 2020, if an enforcement-only approach was effectively implemented over a three-year period, the loss of 50% of agricultural labor could increase agricultural wage rates from $10.80 per hour in 2012 to $18.36 to $26.57 per hour by 2020.

The steep increase in wages would results in a 15% to 31% drop in vegetable production, according to the study, and a 30% to 61% dip in fruit output. The decline in U.S. fruit and vegetable output would be combined with offsetting increases in imported products.

Fruit and vegetable producers won’t be able to pass most of their increased costs on to consumers, according to the study. Growers will face the loss of 30% to 40% of their net revenues due to lower production and higher costs, according to the study.

“With a reworked guest worker program, and by allowing skilled laborers to earn an adjustment of status, food prices remain stable and there are only marginal impacts on production,” Stallman said in the release. “It’s clear that we need greater enforcement, but those two key reforms must be included in the process.”

Stallman said most Americans won’t do farm work, even on a temporary basis.

“The bottom line of this study is that we either import our labor or we import our food.”

Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and vice president for government relations for the American Nursery & Landscape Association, said Feb. 10 the Farm Bureau study appears to reinforce previous regional research looking at the effect on agricultural with an enforcement-only approach.

“All these different studies look are looking at the cost and harm of enforcement only, and that is kind of where we are headed until Congress finds the will to do something,” he said.

Regelbrugge said Republicans in the House appear to agree on the need to act on immigration reform, but 2014 is an election year and may stall the process.