Immigration System Preserves Archaic Agricultural Labor Practices

By David North on December 15, 2010

Two recent events reminded me that the American government uses immigration to preserve an archaic, Third World, agricultural labor practice. And it does so to please a very narrow economic interest.

The pattern I have in mind is of the sheepherders who follow and protect their flocks in distant mountain meadows, sometimes, if lucky, living in a trailer, sometimes in a tent or a hut. The underlying notion is that there is grass for the sheep to eat in remote pastures during the summer, but in the colder months the sheep must be moved back down to lower elevations.

The job of the sheepherders (the system does not call them "shepherds") is clearly a lonely and unattractive one and for decades the government facilitated the entrance of Basques (from Spain, but not Spaniards) to do this work, admitting the workers as temporary H-2A aliens, and then allowing them to adjust to green card status. Other non-immigrant farm workers do not have this opportunity, as the State Department's Foreign Affairs Manual indicates.

During the 1970s the supply of Basques willing to take the job – even with an ultimate green card attached – dwindled so the U.S. ranchers switched to men from the mountains of China, Mexico, Mongolia, and Peru.

The numbers, as immigration numbers go, are not large, so that is not the problem. There are probably only a couple of thousand H-2A sheepherders in the country, mostly in the Rockies. A newsletter published by the University of California at Davis, Rural Migration News, reported in April that:

About two-thirds of the 300 H-2A sheepherders in Colorado are from Peru; an eighth are from Mexico . . . Colorado Legal Services reported that most sheepherders are paid $750 a month, and their long hours mean the hourly wage is far less than the $9.88 [DOL-specified] minimum wage that non-sheepherders with H-2A visas must be paid in 2010.


The $750 per month is presumably in addition to food and rustic housing, but the wages are clearly skimpy. Buck privates in the U.S. Army, who also live rugged lives and are provided with shelter and food, draw $1,274 a month along with many fringe benefits. In short, it certainly appears that the nonimmigrant sheepherders are paid far less than it would cost to fill these jobs on the open market. These wages have been stable for years, if not decades.

Meanwhile, raising sheep in the mountains is neither a growth industry nor one that is crucial to American life. The total income received by American farms for their sheep and lambs was $485 million in 2007, compared to cattle and calves at $49.7 billion; that is a 100-to-one difference.

While I, personally, am fond of sheep and their products – my wife is, among other things, a spinner and a weaver – I am aware of two long-term trends in this field: 1) the total number of sheep in the country, according to the always-useful Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2010 (table 839), declined sharply from 11.4 million in 1990 to 6.0 million in 2007, and 2) alien sheepherders are not employed in America's flatlands, where many sheep make their homes.

In contrast to the current American situation, during World War II, it was probably important to have sheepherders accompany their flocks into the Highlands of Scotland in the summertime, as both the meat and the fleece were needed in the war effort. But we are not in that kind of war, and there is no national need to perpetuate a form of sheep farming that, apparently, can only be arranged with alien labor, a kind of agriculture that works better in the Third World.

The provision of low-cost foreign workers to the ranchers is just one of three subsidies available to them; many of the western ranchers use public lands for grazing, which they rent at bargain rates; further there is a multi-million dollar a year wool subsidy program, along the lines of the subsidies paid to cotton and grain farmers.

My thoughts about the immigration aspects of the U.S. wool industry were stimulated by two sources. First, there was one of those sad stories written by an immigration lawyer about a Peruvian illegal, a sheepherder, who had mismanaged the highly favorable provisions in the immigration law that he could have used to secure a green card. It appeared in the December 6 issue of Immigration Daily. My sense is that if you are going to work in a nation where you are not a citizen, you should learn the rules; this Peruvian did not.

The other source of stimulation was the new report of the UK's Home Office, mentioned in a previous blog of mine. The Home Office has three rules regarding a skills "shortage": it must involve high skills; it must be in a context in which the employers are trying, with pay raises among other tools, to solve the shortages on their own; and filling the vacancy via immigration must be sensible, i.e., fit in with other national policy goals.

Clearly the ranchers are not trying to solve the sheepherder problem on their own, and it does not appear sensible to me that immigration visas should be issued to preserve an archaic segment of agriculture. Obviously there are other ways of raising sheep, ways that do not involve importing foreign workers.

If some part of the resident population wants to hand-carve furniture out of oak, splendid, but we should not expand the entire population to perpetuate the tradition of making hand-carved oak chairs – or that of summertime grazing of sheep in mountain pastures. And we certainly should not exploit alien workers with limited rights just so that we can continue to support an otherwise untenable agricultural process.