Immigration Policy Brief #121

Our Migrant Workforce: Who Are They? How Did They Get Here?

By Kathryn Baron

April 22, 2021

Policy Summary

Migrant workers support the US economy providing American industries like agriculture and technology the critical labor force they need to prosper. In 2019, more than 900,000 temporary foreign workers visas were granted, compared to only 400,000 in 1994.  During lockdown measures in 2020, Trump suspended all temporary work visas to ensure public health safety.

The first migrant labor program came during WWI due to severe labor shortages and drew in agricultural laborers primarily from Mexico. In 1952, lawmakers attempted to regulate and consolidate temporary visa regulations into a comprehensive Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which introduced the H2 visa (the precursor to the H1B). There are currently 4 types of H-visas for temporary workers (with the 4th being for spouses and unmarried children of H-visa recipients).  See below for an explanation of the different H type visas that that are used by migrant workers.

Of the roughly 2.4 million farmworkers in the US, up to 70% (1.68 MILLION) are undocumented. An additional 200,000 come seasonally under H2A visas. California, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, and Minnesota are the biggest producers of crops and livestock,  and are heavily reliant on cheap labor by migrant workers predominantly from Mexico and Central America. Agriculture contributes to around 5% of American GDP, with US farms contributing at least $133 billion of that.

Undocumented workers (illegal immigrants)  make up 5.5 million of essential workers in the US. Since they are undocumented, they do not enjoy any benefits or protections that would ensure job security and are often employed ‘at-will,’ meaning they can be fired with little justification or explanation.  (Note that it is illegal for an employer to hire an undocumented immigrant.) They are not members of labor unions and/or may sometimes be paid informally. Nearly a million of undocumented workers work in restaurants and are vital to daily functions and operations, pandemic notwithstanding.

A Primer on Migrant Worker Visas

The first, an H1B visa, is for workers in fields requiring special knowledge. There is a 3-year limit, eligible for a one-time renewal. H1B visas are predominantly for individuals in computer, software engineering, and tech consulting with the top 3 countries of origin being India, China, and Mexico. In recent years, it has switched to a lottery system due to overwhelming quantities of applicants, far exceeding the 85,000 annual cap. Corporate executives have pushed for the government to expand the program rather than resorting to a lottery system, as it puts major American companies at a disadvantage. Some major corporations find the H1B visa recipients to be crucial for making up for the shortage of qualified domestic applicants.

The second, an H2A visa,is for seasonal/temporary agricultural workers working predominantly in general farm work and industries like tobacco, oranges, and cotton. The top 3 countries of origin are Mexico, Jamaica, and South Africa. There are no annual caps for these visas, but their duration only lasts for one year with up to 3 consecutive renewals. Under H2A visas, employers cover housing and international travel, but provide relatively low wages and little job security benefits such as paid sick leave and time off. Housing conditions are often deplorable, with the federal guidelines dictating a  40-square-feet requirement  per person, roughly the size of a large closet. Similarly, the H2B visa, for seasonal/temporary workers not in agricultural sectors, has the same duration and renewal limits. Most H2B holders are from Mexico, Jamaica, and Guatemala and work in landscaping, forestry, and housekeeping. In 2018, for the first time, the H2B visas system switched to a lottery system. Many employers find the H2A and H2B visas to be inefficient and inflexible.

To issue and obtain H-visas require several steps and involves several executive agencies. Employers must first obtain a certification from the Department of Labor and prove there are no qualified or available workers within the US for the positions necessary. They then file a nonimmigrant worker petition with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services on behalf of prospective workers. Once approved, workers apply to their local US embassy for a visa and interview with Consular officers, usually entailing provision of evidence they intend to return to their country of origin. 


Migrant workers have been vilified and falsely accused of stealing American jobs, and exploited by employers across sectors. However, they are arguably the backbone of the agriculture and service industry and play a pivotal role in guaranteeing food supply stability. During the COVID-19 pandemic, employers have had to adjust to accommodate social distancing measures. Migrant workers, especially those who work in agriculture, are routinely exposed to pesticides which makes them potentially immunocompromised and more at-risk for COVID-19.

Migrant workers, most of whom were already in the US due to the temporary visa freeze, were deemed essential during COVID-19, but most lacked access to essential benefits and protections like decent wages, overtime pay, and health insurance. The US reaps the benefits of being the “melting pot of risk-takers.” Our immigration system needs reform – most Americans can agree, regardless of party affiliation. The Biden Administration should aim to simultaneously strengthen management of the border while providing pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are already here and increasing quotas for legal immigrants. Being too lax will overwhelm the system and force xenophobic or even slightly immigration conservative voters to opt for stricter border and immigration laws regardless of the implications.


Engagement Resources

  • The National Immigration Law Center: an organization that exclusively dedicates itself to defending and furthering the rights of low income immigrants and strives to educate decision makers on the impacts and effects of their policies on this overlooked part of the population.
  • The ACLU: a non-profit with a longstanding commitment to preserving and protecting the individual rights and liberties the Constitution and US laws guarantee all its citizens. You can also donate monthly to counter Trump’s attacks on people’s rights. Recently, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the separation of families at the border.
  • Center for Disease Control: the CDC provides updated information surrounding COVID-19 and the US responses
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA): Through the Department of Homeland Security’s website, this link provides additional information regarding the Obama era program.


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