The Role of Immigrant Labor in the Agricultural Industry of the Walla Walla Valley and Surrounding Communities

Becky Avila

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My research examines the role of immigrant labor in the labor-intensive agricultural industry of the Walla Walla Valley and its surrounding communities. More specifically, my research asks the following questions: to what extent do local agricultural employers rely on immigrant labor for the cultivation of their crops and how does increased immigration enforcement impact this relation? And further, what impact does this have on the local community?

Methods: The data collected for this research included interviews with five local agricultural employers as well as two farmer advocate organizations: the Washington State Farm Bureau and the Washington Growers League. Other primary data included the Agricultural Employers’ Survey issued by Worksource Walla Walla, National Agricultural Workers’ Surveys issued by the Department of Labor, and federal data from the Department of Homeland Security elaborating on immigration enforcement. My secondary research helped concentrate the focus of my research by pointing me to the immigration policies which directly impacted the agricultural industry. Prior scholarship also has clearly presented some of the labor issues at hand for agricultural employers.

Findings: My research indicated that the Walla Walla Valley and its surrounding communities cannot handle a loss of its immigrant labor as the cultivation of the local agricultural industry and success of the local economy depend on it. My research also indicated that roughly 90 percent of the immigrant workforce is Latino and furthermore, that a little over 50 percent of this Latino workforce is undocumented. As such, increased immigration enforcement has impeded the flow of immigrant labor to the point where growers in the Walla Walla Valley are nearing a labor shortage. Also, the research suggests that the mandatory use of the electronic employment verification system, a measure currently pending in Congress, would cripple the local agricultural industry and take the local economy down with it.

Recommendations: On a federal level, the mandatory use of the electronic employment verification system should be opposed until the government can guarantee agricultural employers a steady flow of immigrant labor. With that, the research suggests that a new guestworker program needs to be developed. Unlike the current H-2A guestworker program, the proposed program needs to be affordable, accessible and easy-to-use by all agricultural employers. Similarly, it should be affordable, accessible and attractive to immigrant workers. On a local level, the Walla Walla Valley local community should become more involved in the community’s agricultural industry by offering college credit to those who seek and complete seasonal employment in the agricultural industry.

Community Partner: Roger Bairstow, Broetje Orchards
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