New Research Examines Benefits of Temporary Worker Visas for Seasonal Migrants to U.S.

A research team led by Beatriz Magaloni and Melanie Morten is gathering new data on how H-2A visas impact the economic and social outcomes of families in Mexico and small farm owners in the United States.
Laborers work in field harvesting produce. Unsplash

What benefits do seasonal migrations offer Mexican farm workers and their families? That’s an oft-misunderstood question that researchers at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) hope to clarify through new research focused on America’s H-2A visa program.

Working in collaboration with a U.S.-based employer of H-2A migrants, wafla, and a Mexican-based recruiter of H-2A migrants, REDDES, the Stanford researchers have set out to better understand the economic impacts of seasonal migration for the workers while they are in the U.S., as well as test practices for how to collect data from their families in Mexico. Their findings have the potential to provide empirical data to help inform policymakers and employers about the economic and social impact of this type of seasonal work.The initial pilot phase of the study concluded in October 2022. Starting in the fall of 2022 with two years of funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the researchers will begin a deeper evaluation of the data. To begin, they will conduct a randomized controlled trial of the H-2A guestworker program in order to better understand its effects on attracting communities in Mexico.

A chart showing H-2A jobs verified and visas issued from 2005-2021

“The NSF funded evaluation will focus on the poverty alleviation potential of the H-2A program,” explained Beatriz Magaloni, one of the lead authors on the study and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “We will also study working conditions and how the H-2A program impacts workers’ mental and physical health, as well as intra-family dynamics.”

Evaluating the H-2 Program

The H-2 visa category was originally authorized as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) in 1952, and covered agricultural and non-agricultural workers who sought temporary employment in the U.S. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) divided the H-2 program into two distinct categories: the H-2A program that now covers temporary farmworkers and the H-2B program that covers temporary non-agricultural workers.

Given the nature of migrant work and the inherent challenges associated with constructing valid counterfactuals within the immigration context, rigorous quantitative work in this space can be scarce.
Beatriz Magaloni
Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

The study aims to shed light on the extent that the H-2A program might discourage unauthorized migration. To examine the economic and social outcomes for farmers from Mexico, researchers will collaborate with staff at wafla as well as a recruitment non-profit association in Mexico, REDDES, throughout the upcoming growing season to speak with and compare the experiences of farmworkers who remain in Mexico and those who participate in the H-2A program. These workers will be interviewed before recruitment, during the season in the United States, and then again once they have returned home to Mexico. Researchers will also interview the workers’ families while the temporal migrants are abroad.

“The scientific evaluation of the H-2A program we are working on with wafla and REDDES will generate some of the first evidence about the impact of seasonal migration on Mexican workers and their families,” said Melanie Morten, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and an associate professor of economics.

Challenges for Families in Mexico

Poverty and the income gap between poor and rich countries are major driving forces behind immigration. As of 2018, 42 percent of Mexico’s population lived below the poverty line. While only about 21 percent of the population lives in rural areas, rural inhabitants represent roughly two thirds of the extremely poor. The introduction of “Conditional Cash Transfers” in 1997 played an important role in improving access to health, education, and food for households living in extreme poverty. But this vital policy alleviation strategy was dismantled by the current Mexican president. At the same time, Mexico’s lack of investment and employment in the agricultural sector is weak and keeps rural households trapped in poverty.

Laborers work in field harvesting produce. USDA

The financial benefits of the H-2A program are substantial for both households in Mexico and employers in the United States. Households in which family members have obtained temporary work on higher-paying U.S. farms experience an average increase in monthly incomes of approximately $3,000, which places them in the top decile of the Mexican income distribution. For workers in Mexico, that is enough to potentially lift families out of poverty, allowing them to earn up to several times more in the U.S. doing the same work they were doing in Mexico. For family farms in the U.S., the program could provide smaller businesses with a stable, consistent labor force.

Creating Data-driven Farmworker Policies

Despite these inherent benefits, empirical research into the H-2A program is scarce and policymaking in both the U.S. and Mexico has long taken place without credible data. To rectify that gap, Magaloni’s and Morten’s team said their goals for the study are three-fold.

First, they believe the H-2A program may operate as a method for mobilizing U.S. immigration policy as a development strategy in Mexico. More specifically, they believe it has the potential to spark development in impoverished rural communities and reduce their susceptibility to criminal violence. They will examine the data to determine the viability of these hypotheses.

Second, they seek to fill in a critical gap in currently available data on migration by developing a unique dataset of experimental and observational microdata gathered from guest workers. They intend to collect data on a variety of individual-level metrics as well as household-level metrics on household poverty, human capital, health, employment, and investment decisions.

Third, they understand one of the main critiques of the H2-A program relates to a negative perception of labor conditions and possible human rights abuses. They plan to use experimental survey designs to ask a series of sensitive questions about labor conditions, abuse, violence, and discrimination. The researchers will complement this data with additional administrative data they obtained through FOIA requests from the Department of Labor on wage theft and labor violations, thus allowing them to measure the extent to which certain types of labor violations remain under-reported and unaddressed. 

The scientific evaluation of the H-2A program we are working on will generate some of the first evidence about the impact of seasonal migration on Mexican workers and their families.
Melanie Morten
Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR)

“Given the nature of migrant work and the inherent challenges associated with constructing valid counterfactuals within the immigration context, rigorous quantitative work in this space can be scarce,” Magaloni acknowledges. The interdisciplinary team and their partners at wafla, and other consultants in Mexico and South America are aiming to change that.

Once the work is complete, the researchers plan to make a “de-identified” version of their dataset available for public use. This version will protect private information while still allowing the data to be utilized by interested parties. Outside scholars with proper authorization will be able access the dataset with identifying information.

The aim of Dr. Magaloni and Dr. Morten’s team is to offer their partners and U.S. policymakers a clearer opportunity to evaluate the H-2A program and identify ways to address pressing policy issues. With the new data in hand, they hope to empower businesses, governments, and non-profit organizations to pursue reforms that produce beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders.

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