Ohio has fewer migrant workers
Experts cite immigration crackdown, fewer labor-intensive crops.

By Cornelius Frolik, Staff Writer
11:34 AM Saturday, May 12, 2012

The migrant worker population in the Miami Valley and Ohio is declining, according to new state census data, and some experts believe this is tied to changes in the agricultural economy and fears over tougher immigration enforcement. Farm acreage in Ohio devoted to some types of labor-intensive crops is shrinking, resulting in reduced demand for migrant workers to harvest the fields, experts said.

Mexico’s economy also has improved, and some migrant workers from south of the border may have returned home because of work opportunities. Net immigration from Mexico to the United States has come to a standstill because so many people are returning home, according to new studies.

But some migrant advocacy groups warned not to read too deeply into the state census data because they contend its collection method does not accurately capture the true number of migrant workers in the state.

“In absolute terms, I don’t think there has been a decline in farm workers in the state,” said Mark Heller, staff attorney with Ohio-based Advocates for Basic Legal Equality.

About 12,516 migrant workers lived in Ohio in 2011, a 9 percent drop from 2010 and 14 percent drop from 2009, according to the state’s Migrant Census report by the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services. The population has dropped every year since 2007.

About 1,282 migrant workers lived in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties in 2011, the same number as 2010, but a decrease from 1,317 in 2009, according to the census data.

The estimates are based on information from the Ohio Department of Health, Teaching and Mentoring Communities, Ohio Migrant Education centers and Job & Family Services.

Ohio has seen a decline in acreage for some types of crops that must be hand-picked, which are usually harvested by migrant workers, said Michelle Horn, deputy director of workforce development with Job & Family Services.

Some farms have shifted to “commodities like soybeans or corn that can be picked more with machines,” she said.

Harvesting for fresh market tomatoes is very labor intensive, and the number of acres harvested in the state decreased 32 percent to 3,200 between 2010 and 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s agricultural statistics service.

The number of acres in Ohio for cucumbers increased 10 percent last year to 2,200, but it is still down from about 3,000 a decade earlier, according to experts. Cucumber harvesting also requires lots of field workers.

Experts said many farm jobs have been sent to Mexico, and the country’s agricultural economy is strengthening because of infrastructure improvements and policy changes that provide farmers with easier access to capital.

“If you have been to the grocery store recently, you’ll see more and more of our fruits and vegetables are coming from Mexico,” said Shelly Bromberg, associate professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Miami University. “Mexico has the second-largest economy in Latin America.”

The country’s economy is so strong that is attracting many Mexico-born people home from the United States. Net immigration from Mexico to the United States has fallen to zero, because fewer people are moving here and more are leaving, according to a report released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center.

But economic forces are only part of the explanation behind changing immigration and migration trends.

Many migrant workers may be reluctant to travel to Ohio and other parts of the country because they are concerned about U.S. authorities cracking down illegal immigration, said Francisco Espinoza, program assistant with the Ag & Hort Labor program at the Ohio State University Extension.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 396,906 people in fiscal year 2011, the largest number ever. ICE has instituted new fingerprint-identification programs at county jails across Ohio to identify people who are in the country unlawfully.

National studies suggest as many as 70 percent of migrant workers are in the country illegally. But undocumented migrant workers account for only a fraction of all undocumented workers. Most work in construction, food service and certain segments of the service industry, such as motels and hotels, Espinoza said.

Aggressive immigration enforcement efforts across the country that have scared not only migrant workers, but also employers, said Phil Morones, director and president of Golden Acres Migrant Ministry in Tipp City.

“One main reason (for any decline) is that immigration authorities are monitoring employers very closely, thus making it difficult for undocumented personnel to enter the workforce,” he said.

Some farmers have watched their crops rot in the field because they were unable to find the labor force necessary for harvesting, industry experts said.

Peter Scarff, owner of Scarff’s Nursery & Landscape in New Carlisle, said the number of migrant workers applying to work for his company has declined.

“Migrant workers follow jobs,” he said. “I can you tell you with certainty that a lot of our agricultural jobs are going back across the border.”

Ohio has fewer migrant workers