Last Friday, Professor Giovanni Peri, Professor of Economics at UC Davis, invited Bright Chief Data Scientist David Hardtke and me to present Bright’s H1-B report at Immigration Reform: What Next?, an immigration policy conference organized by the Immigration Law Association of UC Davis School of Law. The UC Davis School of Law is commonly called King Hall, after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it quickly became apparent how relevant that name was as a theme emerged during the full day of presentations: change is needed.
There were calls for changing how we handle undocumented immigrant children, calls for changing the laws and policies that dictate the lives of an estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S., calls for changing how Big Agriculture manages labor, and calls for changing how we as a country best capitalize on our wealth of foreign talent — lest we, as speaker Vivek Wadhwa argued, continue to fall behind developing countries that are empowered by ubiquitous connectivity and inexpensive technology. In the interest of not writing a 5,000-word post, I’ll focus here on the latter two points: changing agricultural staffing and the way in which we utilize foreign skilled labor.
Though David’s presentation of our H1-B report represented a slight detour from the topic of undocumented Mexican workers, it garnered a lot of interest among the largely bilingual audience of seasoned lawyers, inquisitive law students, economics PhDs, community organizers, and non-profit leaders. Which makes sense, if you think about it: after all, whether it’s over skilled or unskilled labor, the debate over immigration is, in essence, a debate over who is allowed to participate in and contribute to the future of the country.
David’s co-panelist, Magnus Lofstrom of the Public Policy Institute of California, presented a study that found H1-B workers are in fact more educated and most often better paid, which indicates that these workers are filling a necessary skills gap, particularly in STEM fields. However, Lofstrom called for further research into the potential effect of an influx of foreign skilled labor on the domestic workforce. Professor Peri answered with some ongoing research that demonstrated an apparent positive effect of the H1-B program, while Vivek Wadwah showed inescapable evidence of the economic benefits of the 52% of Silicon Valley startups founded by immigrants.
The debate as a whole echoed our central finding in the H1-B report. For certain jobs, in certain locations, there is a need for foreign skilled labor, but for other jobs — specifically those favored by the outsourcing industry — the H1-B program is being abused and change is needed. Whether that change takes the shape of Professor Peri’s idea of adopting an auction for H1-Bs or, as David suggested, a shift to localized caps on H1-B applications that reflect the true needs of an area, everyone agreed that change is necessary.
Of course, head out of Silicon Valley to the east and you encounter another economic powerhouse: the Central Valley, where generous Mediterranean climates enable the growth of $43 billion in assorted fruits, vegetables, and nuts a year. Well, make that Mediterranean climates and a steady stream of migrant workers picking and plucking the orchards. Here, rising economic conditions in Mexico, along with uncertain policy, could upend the status quo.
Mexico, according to agricultural economist and conference panelist Edward Taylor, has now become an importer of labor. In its southernmost state, Chiapas, it secures most of its agricultural workers from Guatemala through U.S.-like immigration policies under which workers are often undocumented but tolerated. Taylor, along with fellow economist Philip Martin, asserted that this is a sign of Mexico’s rising economy and has serious implications for U.S. agriculture. They said that for all but the poorest Mexican workers, the opportunity cost of an American agricultural job is just too high. Thus, America needs to change (there’s that word again) its thinking about the source of its agricultural labor. They suggest searching for new ways of managing that labor need: either through controversial policy changes or through new technologies, similar to the revolutionary results produced by UC Davis’s folkloric UC-Blackwelder tomato harvester on the state’s tomato industry in the 1960s.
In response to the threat of potential agricultural labor shortages, Bright ran its own analysis and found an estimated 14,000 good-fit candidates nationwide for a general laborer position in the agricultural industry, which is well below the estimated 3 million seasonal farmworkers in the United States and assumes that U.S. workers would be willing to even take agricultural jobs. But as Philip Martin pointed out at the start of his talk, a large, domestic American agricultural workforce is a myth; mechanization would occur before attractive wages. Change is coming, one way or another.