Immigration: Down in Farm Country, Up in Some Cities

By: - May 4, 2016 12:00 am

© The Associated Press

Workers plant strawberries in California. A decline in the number of immigrants coming from Mexico has left many farmers short of labor.

SEATTLE — In the fruit and vegetable country around Seattle, farmworkers talk about smuggling fees as high as $8,500 per person and arduous, circuitous routes across the Mexican border. Under those conditions, thousands fewer are coming to work in the fields and farmers are desperate for more help.

But in Seattle, it’s the opposite: more immigrants are flocking to fill a void in fields like information technology and engineering, as tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft expand operations. Many are from India, with visas for skilled workers.  

The divergent immigration patterns are particularly evident in Washington state, where farmland surrounds the booming tech centers of Seattle and nearby Redmond, home to Amazon and Microsoft. But the changes are occurring in other parts of the country, as Asians replace Mexicans in the immigrant stream.

A Stateline analysis of Census estimates shows that many high-tech centers, such as Seattle, San Diego and Boston, are seeing more immigration than they did 10 years ago. At the same time, many rural agricultural counties that have relied on foreign migrant workers, primarily from Mexico, have seen a drop in immigration.

Agricultural areas from Georgia’s Hall County, home of poultry farms and processing plants, to Seward County, Kansas, home of cattle feedlots and packing plants, and Tulare County, California, which has fruit, vegetable and dairy farms, saw immigration drop more than 75 percent in the first five years of this decade compared to 2000 to 2005, when Mexican immigration was at its peak.

Indiana’s Elkhart County, where small farms and recreational vehicle manufacturing provide jobs, immigration dropped from a total of almost 5,000 in the early period to less than 700. At the same time in the same state, it grew by 64 percent in Tippecanoe County, home of Purdue University, and more than doubled in Monroe County, home of Indiana University.

Among the 10 counties with the biggest immigration gains in this decade are tech or education strongholds like Seattle’s King County, San Diego County, and Boston’s neighboring Middlesex County, home of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

The dramatic shift in immigration has implications for state and local economies. Tech companies say the newcomers fill a gap in U.S.-born science and technology graduates, allowing them to keep more operations in the U.S. and create jobs for other Americans. Farmers and their advocates say the shortage of migrant workers forces them to cut production, waste crops they can’t harvest or pay more for labor, which opens the door to less-expensive foreign produce.

“Here in Washington, we do hand-picked crops,” said Burr Mosby, who has a 350-acre vegetable farm in the Green River Valley southeast of Seattle. “We need workers. And we can’t get them,” he said.

In 11 rural counties around Seattle, the number of immigrants in the first half of this decade was between half and 90 percent less than what it was in 2000-2005. 

“Farmers are in a very dire position here, locally, statewide in Washington, on the West Coast — anywhere in the country where there’s labor-intensive agriculture,” said Chad Kruger, director of Washington State University’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle. “The cost of production has gone up and they are struggling to get the labor they need.”

But in King County, more than 75,000 new immigrants arrived between 2010 and 2015, an increase of 24 percent over the previous decade. The number of immigrants arriving from India more than doubled between 2005 and 2014, and the number from China grew more than 50 percent. Immigration also was up in neighboring Pierce and Snohomish counties, where many workers are finding homes as King County home prices and rents rise in the tech boom.

“The tech factor is really driving up South Indian immigration, not only in Seattle but in the suburbs,” said Shelly Kamran, a Seattle-born daughter of Indian immigrants who organizes social events for new South Asian immigrants.

The new immigrants are changing the city in many ways. Two Indian immigrants were recently elected to public office in Seattle: Democratic state Sen. Pramila Jayapal in 2014 and city council member Kshama Sawant in 2013.

And A.R. Rahman, the singer and musician who composed the soundtrack for the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” sold out a 5,000-seat show in Redmond last year and added a second. “I couldn’t imagine this happening even five years ago,” Kamran said.

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.