Not Enough Illegal Farm Workers?

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By Maria Fotopoulos

Maria is a CAPS Senior Writing Fellow who focuses on the impacts of growth on biodiversity. Find her on Twitter | in | FB.

The writer’s views are her own.


 

May 18, 2012

California supposedly now has an “illegal immigrant shortage” – not enough illegal workers for farms in the state, according to “Bloomberg Businessweek” (May 7 - 13, 2012). This story comes with a spate of others generated after the Pew Hispanic Center released a report that net migration from Mexico has dropped to zero.

That said, the U.S. still has an illegal population in the United States estimated at 12 million, with half of that population from Mexico. There’s also unemployment at 8.1 percent nationwide, and in California unemployment is at 11 percent. U.S. jobs are being created at one-fifth the rate of population growth.

The Bloomberg article quotes a grower who says he’s had a hiring shortfall for 10 years and other growers who are either considering taking their business south of the U.S. border or already have. Bloomberg says the “bottom line” from the net-zero migration is that California’s border farmers have been left “in the lurch.”

Hrrrm. What is the layman to make of this? Are we to pity the California farmer? Or, is this just some really skewed reporting?

The article is positioned, I think, so that the reader’s takeaway is (1) only illegal workers – so rare now supposedly – can work on farms (read between the lines that “these are jobs Americans won’t do”) and (2) this is such a horrible situation that growers might actually have to move out of California to Mexico. Read the latter as: jobs moving to Mexico would be a loss of income and tax base for a chronically bankrupt and mismanaged state. But given how many farm jobs were lost in Mexico due to NAFTA, perhaps farm job creation in Mexico would be a good thing, yes?

A few other questions come to mind. What’s the state of mechanization for California growers, and with such high unemployment among Americans and a huge illegal population still in the U.S., how can there possibly be a labor shortage?

There’s a good article about the state of mechanization in agribusiness from the University of California. Briefly, growers continuously are looking for improvements through mechanization. There have been significant enhancements which have led to reduction in labor costs, particularly in rice and tomato growing. As well, there’s been quite a bit of investment in trying to develop mechanized processes for olives and raisin grapes.

But for hand-harvested fruits and veggies, progress in commercial harvesters has been limited. The article concludes that overseas competition and labor shortage could speed up mechanization of some crops.

Repeat. A labor shortage could speed up mechanization of some crops.

So, then it’s back to the labor question.

A detailed 30-page study (well worth the read) by FAIR found that “half of all crop farm workers are unauthorized and have annual incomes that are $5,600 less than that of authorized workers working in the same sector.” With such a huge wage discrepancy between legal and illegal workers, it’s easy to see why the agriculture business would cry shortage with any drop-off in illegal immigration.

Agribusiness has grown so accustomed to illegal workers (and the lax government enforcement that encourages this practice) even though workers could be hired legally through the H-2A visa. This visa allows foreign nationals to work as temporary agricultural workers, permits the holder to travel in and out of the U.S. and permits dependents to stay with them in the U.S. while they’re working.

That this visa is available makes the wrap-up in the Bloomberg article rather pitiful:

“It’s not hard to imagine why Mexicans might prefer working for Cox’s Mexico operation, given the increase in security in recent years. Standing at a border section where migrants would have to scale a 20-foot fence, navigate a canal, and evade security cameras and motion detectors, not to mention agents stationed along the line, Armando Garcia, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, says: ‘Why put yourself through all of this when there may not be a job waiting for you on the other side.’”

Of further interest in this alleged labor shortage is that the agricultural industry is a very profitable business sector – perhaps easy to conclude why when you consider that it flouts the law and runs on the backs of underpaid illegal labor.

Perhaps this is not so much a situation of a labor shortage rather than one industry’s thirst for quasi-slave labor.

So, a lot of talk about illegal workers on farms. What about the idea of unemployed American citizens working on farms?

Americans actually used to work on farms. Some still do. Amazing, I know! Again, this is just a layman’s thoughts, but I continuously wonder why long-term unemployed can’t be asked to do some sort of work in exchange for their benefits. Ditto folks on other government assistance, such as those interviewed in New York City in a video from Alexandra Pelosi for Bill Maher’s show.

Oh, wait, some of these folks simply don’t want to work; they just want a free check and the freedom to reproduce indiscriminately! “Not looking for a job; maybe a career, but not a job.” (Pelosi is an equal opportunity offender; she shows some of the worst of the South too.)

*****

What a mess we’ve created in America!

Greedy for cheap labor, agribusiness has exploited a large number of workers, largely from Mexico, and our government (a government that in reality is neither for, nor by, the people) fails to enforce laws which would ensure a legal workforce, while taxpayers absorb the huge costs associated with illegal immigration. That’s on one end of the spectrum.

Add to this a culture of entitlement that has snaked its way into the American psyche, shake with a mentality that values ignorance over education and eschews a work ethic, and you’ve got a good recipe going for a failing country.

I’m not particularly optimistic after looking at these little slices of America. Are you?

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