The United States traveled down the road of booting immigrant labor in hopes that American workers would reap higher wages and a bounty of jobs long before President Donald Trump came on the scene, but according to the Economist, the desired result was never realized.
All that happened in the early 1960s. The president was John F. Kennedy; the Mexicans were participating in the bracero programme, which allowed almost half a million people a year to take seasonal work on America’s farms.
Michael Clemens and Hannah Postel of the Centre for Global Development, and Ethan Lewis of Dartmouth College, have used archived records of American agricultural jobs and wages to test whether Kennedy was right. Did ending the bracero scheme in 1964 in fact lead to higher wages and more work for Americans in the fields?
It turns out the answer is no.
The answer is a firm no. In states where farmers had relied heavily on foreign labour—a group that includes California and Texas—American natives found a few more farm jobs in the mid 1960s. But the rise was small and temporary; within a few years the long decline in agricultural jobs had resumed.
And the trend was almost identical in states where there had been no braceros. Similarly, farm wages rose in states where there had been lots of migrant workers, states where there had been few migrant workers and states where there had been almost none (see chart). Ending the bracero scheme seems to have affected American workers not a bit.
An interesting effect of eliminating immigrant farm workers was the emergence of machinery to replace the need for human workers at all:
Some farm jobs, like tomato picking, could be automated fairly easily in the 1960s. And ending the bracero scheme seems to have accelerated mechanisation in the tomato fields of California. Much the same happened with cotton and sugar beet. Other crops, like lettuces and asparagus, still required human pickers. Production of some such crops simply declined.
The Economist notes that today higher wages are being legislated, and this includes labor on farms.
But in California, it’s having the same effect as booting low-wage immigrant workers:
In California, America’s most important farming state, politicians have ensured that workers will receive at least $15 an hour by 2023. And Manuel Cunha, a citrus grower who is president of the Nisei Farmers’ League, complains about other costly reforms, such as mandatory overtime pay for people who work more than eight hours a day.
In response, he says, farmers are moving from crops that require careful handling, like apricots—“just look at an apricot and it will turn brown”—to crops that can be harvested by machine.
Perhaps if we want farm workers to receive higher wages, we’ll have to boot the machines, too.