There are few roles in the U.S. food system as tough as being an immigrant farmworker ... especially one without documentation. There has been enormous advocacy in recent years to improve farmworker wages and working conditions.
Yet, in addition to advocacy, it is worthwhile to stay informed about the economic fundamentals that even more strongly influence working conditions for immigrant laborers.
Consider the consequences of several recent years of economic recovery (which increases job opportunities outside of agriculture), combined with the failure of sensible immigration reforms (which would have included a compromise with farmers, designed to stabilize their labor supply).
Economic growth and (perhaps pardoxically) nativist conservative grass-roots opposition to immigration reform have combined to raise wages for immigrant farmworkers.
Specialty crop growers generally depend on a large number of farm workers to grow, harvest, and pack their tender fresh crops. Consequently, growers are sensitive to both the cost and availability of farm labor. Working conditions in agriculture are often physically challenging and hourly earnings are relatively low compared to other employment opportunities for U.S. residents. Thus, a large portion of agricultural labor needs have been met by immigrant workers. A high percentage of these immigrants are working in the United States without legal authorization. In recent years grower concerns over cost and availability have intensified as the rhetoric over comprehensive immigration reform continues to harden.