03 Jun, 2021

Immigrants can make American food great again

by Alessandro Balduzzi

Migration has always played a key role for the functioning of US food sector. The need to keep providing Americans with safe, affordable food have made immigrants even more important to counter Covid-19’s disruptions to the food industry.

Migration has always played a key role for the functioning of US food sector, even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the 2018 American Community Survey, immigrants working in the sector amount to about 3.8 million people, making up more than one in five employees (21.6 percent of its workforce). Their contribution is even greater for what concerns food processing (28.7 per cent) and agriculture (27.6 percent). As to their distribution across the country, immigrants are 69 percent of California’s agriculture workers, 70 percent of Alaska’s seafood processing workers, and 66 percent of Nebraska’s meat processing workers.

Their contribution is crucial even further down the food supply chain. Besides picking fresh vegetables and fruits or processing meat and seafood, foreign-born workers also stock shelves with groceries in supermarkets, work as waiters in restaurants, and deliver food to people’s doorway. Just to give you an idea, immigrants amount to 16.6 percent and 20 percent in grocery stores’ and restaurants’ employees respectively.

In light of their outsized role in food production and supply, immigrants have been at the core of the chain during the pandemic. Notably, the agriculture sector was already facing a labour shortage before the coronavirus outbreak and relied heavily on immigrant workers to fill the gaps US-born farmers and ranchers were not able to overcome.

This context and the need to keep providing Americans with safe, affordable food have made immigrants even more important to counter Covid-19’s disruptions to the agriculture industry.

During the pandemic, the main challenge to address was represented by travel restrictions. Last year the Homeland Security Department announced a temporary rule allowing US farms to employ H-2A workers who were already in the country, while temporary workers were granted with a 3-years stay permit into federal territory. H-2A non-immigrant classification applies to alien workers seeking to perform agricultural labour or services of a temporary or seasonal nature in the United States, usually lasting no longer than one year, for which able, willing, and qualified US workers are not available.

Given their disproportionate contribution to some of the most at-risk jobs, immigrants have been working on the frontline in the food sector too. For instance, workers in groceries and supermarkets have faced a heightened risk of infection due to their close contact with the public.

After reporting the first deaths among their employees due to Covid-19 last year, more and more grocery stores and supermarkets finally decided to install plexiglass sneeze guards at cash registers and require customers to keep safe distance. If we shift our focus to agricultural jobs, the current threat of infection added to pre-existing risks linked to heavy equipment, pesticide exposure, record heat waves, and even wildfires.

Besides health-related implications, the pandemic crisis has also had severe effects on immigrants’ employment. Whilst delivery workers (one in five are foreign-born) have seen their workload increase since most American families have eaten at home in the past few months, many others - such as waiters and waitresses - faced economic hardships since restaurants were not allowed to offer dine-in services.

Agriculture was and remains the most severely affected sector. Labour shortage had already been a well-known problem years before the pandemic: in 2014 the American Farm Bureau Federation estimated that US agriculture needed 1.5 to 2 million hired workers yearly. Since then, the situation has only got worse.

Several reasons explain this negative trend. First, there are still not enough US citizens applying when wages and benefits are increased, which makes immigrants even more vital. Second, the current agricultural workforce is aging and young workers are not as available as needed. Third, current US immigration policy and rising incomes in Mexico have reduced the influx of foreign-born workers capable of filling the sector’s shortfalls. Forth, employees lose motivation quickly when their perspective is to contribute massively to American agriculture without getting any legal protection by Federal laws – or even live under the threat of arrest or family separation.

In conclusion, Covid-19 has shown once more how essential are immigrants to keep American economy - and notably its vibrant food sector - thriving.

To guarantee safe working conditions and a regulated immigration status to foreign-born workers is not only a legal and moral imperative. It is also a sine qua non condition to address labour shortages - especially in agriculture – in order to stabilize its workforce, help US farmers stay open for business, and push back on increasing food and production costs.