Immigrant Workers in Texas Could Fill Farm Vacancies, but They’re Trapped in the Valley

Immigration checkpoints are keeping undocumented immigrants in South Texas while farmers in other parts of the state are desperate for labor.


For the last two years, Bernie Thiel has watched yellow squash rot in his farm fields outside of Lubbock. The crops weren’t diseased, and they weren’t ravaged by pests or pelted by hail, he said. There just wasn’t anyone to pick them. Though Thiel has consistently lowered the acreage he plants to squash — from 160 acres seven years ago to 60 acres now — his aging immigrant workforce just can’t keep up anymore. And there’s no one to replace them.

“It’s very, very frustrating because we can move this product. The demand is there,” Thiel told the Observer. “The labor is just not available.”

Along with squash, Thiel also grows other labor-intensive crops, such as zucchini, tomatoes and okra, which must be hand-picked. He has 35 employees working six or seven days a week. It’s hard, backbreaking work that most Americans aren’t willing to do. That’s why he, like many farmers, largely relies on immigrant labor to get the work done.  

But there’s a problem: Between 50 and 70 percent of immigrant farmworkers are in the country illegally. Texas is home to an estimated 1.6 million undocumented immigrants, and many of those who are available to work on farms live in the Rio Grande Valley, near the Texas-Mexico border. Though large populations of immigrants are clustered in Houston and other urban areas of the state, many already work in non-agricultural industries.

The Valley, however, has a surplus of undocumented labor — Hildalgo County alone has an undocumented population of approximately 100,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. But to get to Thiel’s Panhandle farm, workers would have to travel on a major highway, past immigration checkpoints, and risk being deported. That’s a chance many of them aren’t willing to take.

Permanent border checkpoints in Texas  Yale Law Journal

Thiel said most of his current workers are beneficiaries of the Reagan-era Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to immigrants who entered the country before 1982. But the workers are getting old (some of them are in their 70s and 80s), and they don’t move as quickly as they used to. Thiel said he’s advertised for domestic workers but has had little luck. If he can’t find more labor soon, “I may just bow out and ride off into the sunset.”   

The pressure to find adequate labor is increasingly being felt across agricultural industries, Texas producers say. In July, Erath County dairy operator Sonja Koke testified to the U.S. House Agriculture Committee that she was struggling to hire year-round help for her 200-cow dairy. “Every day, we try to get people to come work for us,” she said. Proponents of the horse and beef cattle industries have also bemoaned worker shortages.  

Several factors, including relatively low pay and sometimes dangerous work conditions, contribute to farm labor shortages statewide. But especially outside of the Rio Grande Valley, they can also be tied to enhanced immigration enforcement by federal, state and local authorities. In June, the Associated Press reported deportation fears were driving labor shortages in several Texas industries, including agriculture, which has an annual economic impact of $100 billion here. Those fears are exacerbated by the “show me your papers” or “sanctuary cities” bill that was signed into law this year.

“Every day, we try to get people to come work for us.”

President Donald Trump has made it clear he does not welcome immigrants to the U.S. He’s promised to build a border wall, signed executive orders banning travel to the U.S. by people from certain countries, and most recently has held hostage hundreds of thousands of immigrants protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in an effort to pass other hardline immigration proposals.

For undocumented workers who dare to travel outside the Valley for farmwork, the stakes are high. If caught by immigration authorities, they could be separated from their families and sent back to their home countries where they have fewer economic opportunities and may face violence, said Daniela Dwyer, managing attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid’s farmworker program.

Jen Reel

“I have heard of workers deciding not to migrate out of the Valley to migratory jobs they used to take,” she said, giving the example of one “migratory stream” that once saw immigrants harvesting crops through Texas and into the Midwest. That stream, and others like it, are in jeopardy. “I have heard of some people, especially because they’re concerned about the checkpoints leading out of the Valley, deciding not to migrate.”

There’s at least one immigration checkpoint on three major highways leading out of the Valley: U.S. 281, U.S. 77 and U.S. 83.

The H-2A visa program, which allows employers to hire foreign nationals for temporary agricultural jobs, is designed to alleviate such labor shortages. But some of the growers interviewed by the Observer said the program’s requirements — that employers provide transportation to the jobsite and nearby housing — are too expensive, and the paperwork that comes with participating in the federal program is a hassle. Despite the fact that Texas has more agricultural production than almost any other state, it doesn’t even break the top 10 in certified H-2A workers.  

This month, U.S. Representative Robert Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican,proposed a bill that would create a new visa program, called the H-2C, that would allow workers to stay in the U.S. for longer but would not require employers to provide transportation and shelter. The bill has been met by opposition from both pro- and anti-immigrant groups. Immigration hawks fear that allowing laborers to work in the country for longer than a year might encourage them to overstay their welcome, while farmworker advocates say the bill would further erode workers’ rights.

Bloomberg reported that a markup on the bill was scheduled for October 4, but pressure from an anti-immigrant group has stalled the measure. Meanwhile, Democrats have introduced their own legislation that would revamp the visa system and offer undocumented farmworkers a path to citizenship.