Immigration status and farmwork: understanding the wage and income gap across U.S. policy and economic eras, 1989-2016

Jennifer L. Scott*, Jo Mhairi Hale, Yolanda C. Padilla

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


An estimated 7.8 million people live and work in the United States without authorized status. We examine the extent to which legal status makes them vulnerable to employment discrimination despite technically being protected under labor laws. We use three decades of data from the nationally representative National Agricultural Workers Survey, which provides four categories of self-reported legal status. We investigated how legal status affects wages and income of Mexican immigrant farmworkers using linear regression analyses. We then used Blinder-Oaxaca models to decompose the wage and income gap across the 1989 to 2016 period, categorized into five eras. Unauthorized farmworkers earned significantly lower wages and income compared to those with legal permanent resident (LPR) and citizen status, though the gap narrowed over time. Approximately 57% of the wage gap across the entire period was unexplained by compositional characteristics. The unauthorized/citizen wage gap narrowed across eras; however, the unexplained proportion increased substantially—from approximately 52% to 93%. That the unexplained proportion expanded during eras with increased immigration enforcement and greater migrant selectivity supports the hypothesis that unauthorized status functions as a defining social position. This evidence points to the need for immigration reform that better supports fair labor practices for immigrants.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)861–893
Number of pages33
JournalPopulation Research and Policy Review
Publication statusPublished - 2 Apr 2021


  • Immigration status
  • Wage discrimination
  • Latinos
  • Farmworkers
  • Undocumented
  • Inequality


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