Report: Can U.S. Farm Workers Be Replaced by Machines?

Parsing Immigration Policy, Episode 143

By Mark Krikorian and Philip Martin on February 22, 2024

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Listen to "Report: Can U.S. Farm Workers Be Replaced by Machines?" on Spreaker.


A Center for Immigration Studies report and companion podcast episode, “Can U.S. Farm Workers be Replaced by Machines? Mechanizing Fruit and Vegetable Production,” provide historical context as well as analysis of current challenges and prospects for farm labor and mechanization. Both the report and the discussion explain the options available to replace U.S. farm workers - machines, H-2A guestworkers, and imports.

The report outlines how rising labor costs have historically driven the adoption of mechanization in agriculture. It traces the evolution of farm mechanization, from the end of the Bracero program in the 1960s to the present day, highlighting pivotal moments such as the enactment of the Immigration and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). IRCA supporters promised that legalized farm workers would demand higher wages, and that farm employers would have to raise wages and improve working conditions to retain legalized workers or hire H-2A guestworkers. But this did not happen, partly due to massive fraud.

Philip Martin, professor emeritus of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California at Davis and author of the report, discusses how once legalized the workers left the fields for other employment and were replaced by new illegal workers. Since the passing of IRCA, which legalized more than one million illegal farm workers, the debate over the pay and work conditions of those in the fields and the role of mechanization has persisted.

Martin emphasizes the pivotal role of government policies in impacting the growth of mechanization through labor-saving research, the cost of farm workers, and imports. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), approved by the U.S. House in March 2021 and re-introduced in July 2023, is the most recent legislation debated and repeats the IRCA bargain – legalization of illegal farmworkers for easier access to H-2A guestworkers.

There is a race between labor-saving machines and migrant H-2A workers playing out amidst rising imports. Higher labor costs accelerate investments in machines to replace workers and spur government and private efforts to develop new farming systems, biological and engineering breakthroughs, and supply chain adjustments to accelerate labor-saving mechanization.

Martin stresses, “Research, migration, and trade policies will help to determine whether workers or machines pick U.S. apples and oranges in 2030.”

In his closing commentary, Mark Krikorian, the Center’s executive director and podcast host, highlights President Biden’s false claim that he does not have the authority to control the border and action from Congress is required. Political vulnerability is now forcing him to control the massive numbers entering the country.


Mark Krikorian is the Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.


Philip Martin is Professor Emeritus of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California at Davis


Can U.S. Farm Workers Be Replaced By Machines?

Bracero 2.0: Mexican Workers in North American Agriculture

Biden’s New Border Plan Shows ‘I Can’t Do Anything’ Was Always A Lie


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Intro Montage

Voices in the opening montage:

  • Sen. Barack Obama at a 2005 press conference.
  • Sen. John McCain in a 2010 election ad.
  • President Lyndon Johnson, upon signing the 1965 Immigration Act.
  • Booker T. Washington, reading in 1908 from his 1895 Atlanta Exposition speech.
  • Laraine Newman as a "Conehead" on SNL in 1977.
  • Hillary Clinton in a 2003 radio interview.
  • Cesar Chavez in a 1974 interview.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaking to reporters in 2019.
  • Prof. George Borjas in a 2016 C-SPAN appearance.
  • Sen. Jeff Sessions in 2008 comments on the Senate floor.
  • Charlton Heston in "Planet of the Apes".