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Immigration reform too late to fix one big problem, studies say

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“This [trend] means that immigration policy will cease to be a solution to the US farm labor problem in the long run and probably sooner. In fact, we already may be witnessing the start of a new era in which farmers will have to adapt to labor scarcity by switching to less labor-intensive crops, technologies, and labor management practices,” according to the University of California study released in March.

Together, the two studies reinforce statistically what experts have been cataloging anecdotally since the 1980s, pointing to several reasons for the historic drop in cheap Mexican farm labor.

• As incomes in Mexico have risen, workers have shifted out of farm work into other sectors. Mexico’s farm workforce fell by nearly 2 million – 25 percent – from 1995 to 2010, and its per capita income now exceeds $15,000 per year. “Moving away from farm work as your income rises, reflects a pattern seen in many other countries,” says Edward Taylor, one of the authors of the University of California report.

• Fertility rates have changed dramatically – down from a norm of seven children per woman in 1970 to just over two today.

• Rural education has also improved dramatically. The average schooling for rural Mexicans 50 or older is 4.9 years, but for those in their 20s it is 9.7 years. “Better educated children eschew farm work in Mexico,” says Mr. Taylor.

These developments could help proponents of immigration reform dull some criticism of the plan.

“This study suggests that the level of illegal immigration will never return to its prior levels,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., referring to the University of California research. “That may serve to reduce the heat surrounding the issue and prompt Washington to address the problem with legislation for the first time in decades.”

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