Washington had the largest one-year increase in the number of Mexican immigrants of any state in 2014, according to census data. But the national trend shows immigration from Mexico — both legal and illegal — has declined dramatically in recent years.
For all the talk of illegal immigration from Mexico lately — and, of course, the infamous wall proposed by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — you might think that the number of border crossings is skyrocketing.
Census data shows that in 2004, there were 380,000 U.S. residents who reported living in Mexico one year earlier. By 2014 — the most recent year for which data is available — that number had fallen by more than half, to 123,000.
But surprisingly, the most recent figures show that Washington state — suddenly — is bucking the national trend.
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In 2014, Washington had the largest one-year increase in the number of Mexican immigrants of any state, according to my analysis of census data. Between 2013 and 2014, the number of Washington residents who lived in Mexico one year earlier nearly tripled to about 5,300, the data shows.
The census figures, which are adjusted for undercount, do not distinguish between those who come here legally and illegally — both are included in the data.
After the 2008 recession, the number of immigrants from Mexico to Washington declined rapidly, paralleling the national trend. Since the beginning of this decade, India, China and the Philippines each consistently sent more people to Washington than Mexico.
But in the latest data, Mexico ranked as the top source of new immigrants to Washington, ahead of India — the first time that’s happened in five years.
It could be due to a boom in Washington agriculture, which has resulted in a shortage of domestic farm laborers, according to Dan Fazio, the executive director and CEO of the Washington Farm Labor Association.
“Blueberries, cherries, apples, peaches, pears,” Fazio said. “The market for these is exploding.”
Washington farms are producing record crops to meet the demand, which is coming from both the U.S. and abroad.
Take cherries, for example.
“It used to be that the cherry harvest was one month — June. By July Fourth, it was gone,” Fazio said. “Now we start cherries middle to late May and they go to mid-August … Cherries are very profitable, and they’ve been able to figure out how to grow them for a longer season.”
To meet the urgent need for farmworkers, Washington growers have turned to Mexico and other countries.
There’s a federal program for farmers facing a shortage of domestic workers — the H-2A legal-worker program. Farmers who use it must demonstrate that they could not find a U.S. worker willing or able to do the job.
Data from the state Employment Security Department shows more than 12,000 guest workers in Washington with H-2A visas in 2015 — nearly double the number from 2013.
“Washington growers are embracing the H-2A legal-worker program,” Fazio said. “We are far ahead of the rest of the West Coast, which has lagged.” He estimates the program is used by between 150 and 200 Washington growers.
The H-2A program provides higher wages and more protections for all workers employed on a farm, both foreign and domestic. Also, farmers using the program must provide free housing for guest workers.
“The minimum wage for H-2A is $12.69 per hour,” Fazio said. “Add free housing and other perks and you are pretty much at the mythical $15-per-hour living wage that Seattle aspires to hit in five years.”
According to Fazio, H-2A guest workers can easily earn $3,000 a month in Washington — more than they’d make in a year in Mexico.