The Foreign Farmworker (H-2A) Program Should be Used to Ease the Pressures on our Southern Border

Part 4 of 6: Introducing U.S. prisoners as an alternative to foreign workers

By David North on June 28, 2019

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As the years pass, it would be useful to this nation if we started to introduce some of the all-too-numerous prisoners in U.S. prisons to the task of harvesting our crops, rather than to give those jobs, as we do now, to foreign workers in the H-2A program.

The wages would stay in the States, above-average prisoners would be given a chance to have more money in their jeans as they leave our prisons, and thus be a bit less likely to return to those places, the prisons would reduce their costs, if only slightly, and rural employers would no longer have to pay so much in international travel costs — so a win-win-win situation, if a complicated one.

There were far more people in U.S. prisons, more than 2.1 million of them, living there full-time, year-round, in 2018, than H-2A farmworkers (just 242,464, most working only part of that year). That's an nine-to-one ratio, so the vast majority of prison inmates could be excluded from farm work, and the remaining elite (if you will) of the inmates could harvest virtually everything in sight, if appropriate arrangements were made.

These inmate/farm workers would be recruited from 102 federal prisons and 1,719 state ones; since these prisons have longer-term inhabitants than local jails, my sense is that the former would be used in this program, but not the latter. Recruitment arrangements would be made between specific employers and specific prisons, with these deals subject to U.S. government approval.

Overall Goals. The policy objective is that a few years from now we would have a reduced foreign farm labor population, mostly drawn from Central America, rather than from Mexico, as well as a substantial population of about-to-be-ex-inmates working in the fields.

As background, it is useful to note that a large number of prisons are in rural areas and that the vast majority of inmates are in their working years and few of them have any opportunity to work in the private sector; further, this is a population that can be organized swiftly to fill any labor shortages caused by quickly changing conditions — the need to gather the crop before the arrival of an adverse weather event, for example.

Usually the prison population is not regarded as a national asset, but it could be in the labor-intensive sector of agriculture.

As to which of the many prisoners are to do this work, we would suggest that two subgroups of prisoners be excluded, both minorities in the total population: first, those with violent crimes in their backgrounds, and those who are not legally qualified to work in the States, such as immigration law violators. Those chosen to work in the fields would be volunteers with above-average behavior records, and would include those about to be released; past agricultural work could be considered as well.

Another basic requirement would be that the prisoners' wages and working conditions would have to meet the legal standards set for H-2A workers. The point of this exercise is not to undermine already low standards in farm labor markets.

While the inmate workers would be paid at H-2A rates, which are supposed to not impose "adverse effects" on American workers generally, the prison will be permitted to obtain (from the prisoners) something like $3.00 an hour to help cover the prison's costs. The prisons also should receive payments — this time from the growers — for the salary of the bus-driver/guards who would accompany the prisoners, say at the rate of one driver/guard to 30 prisoners.

All of this is a to be a delicate balance, with benefits to inmates, to prisons, and to employers, in addition to the nation as a whole (by reducing the number of foreign farm workers). If any one of the parties gets too greedy, the whole arrangement will fall apart.

Implementing These Suggestions. While employers of all kinds, rural and urban, might be encouraged to use selected prison populations as short-term employees, our objective here is a narrower one, to cause the larger users of H-2As to start using this work force. Such a change, however, will be seen as a drastic one (whether it is or not) by the H-2A users, so a gradual introduction will be needed for both political and administrative reasons. It is new territory for the government, too.

Nobody knows what the best arrangements are among the prisons, the rural employers, and the better-than-average prisoners. Moving too quickly or ineptly might destroy a perfectly good idea.

With all that in mind I would urge, for 2020, that the largest 20 users of H-2As in 2019 be granted 85 percent of the H-2As that they had in 2019, and then be obliged to fill the gap with prison workers. Any of the top-20 employers whose job locations (not headquarters) are more than 50 miles from prisons with 200 or more prisoners could petition for some relief.

As the table below shows, all but one listed state (Washington) has prisoner/H-2A ratios of three to one or better, and nationally it is nine to one. In the minority of situations where, as in Washington, the ratio is less favorable, perhaps the rules for H-2A-users could be somewhat different. There are lots of potential workers in those prisons.

Number of H-2As in 10 Leading States
and the Ratios to Those States'
Prison Populations

State H-2As
Number of Federal,
State, and
Local Prisoners
Column 2
as a Ratio to
Column 3
Georgia 32,364 100,900 1:3
Florida 30,462 171,000 1:6
Washington 24,862 35,000 1:1.4
North Carolina 21,794 66,000 1:3
California 18,908 230,000 1:12
Louisiana 10,079 49,100 1:5
Michigan 8,459 62,600 1:7
New York 7,634 88,000 1:11
Kentucky 7,604 40,500 1:5
Arizona 7,497 60,600 1:8
All Others 102,801 1,235,300 1:12
Totals 242,464 2,139,000 1:9

Sources: "H-2A Temporary Agricultural Labor Certification Program - Selected Statistics, FY 2018", Office of Foreign Labor Certification, September 30, 2018; Prison Policy Initiative.

A new set of the 20 largest users would be told, in the following year, 2021, that their usage of H-2As would drop by 15 percent and they would be encouraged to work with the prisons. Care would be taken so that large H-2A users would not avoid these requirements by corporate re-organizations that split big employing firms into smaller ones. Similarly the U.S. government would need to make sure that state governors would not seek to destroy the program by causing the prison wardens to demand too much of employers.

By the end of the year 2021 we would have had at least 40 different experiences with this idea and could modify and, one hopes, expand, the program using these models to make it still better in the years to come, thus further reducing the need for nonimmigrant workers.

The author is grateful to Mihran Markarian, a CIS intern, for his research assistance.