17 to Replace 1,300,000?

August 26, 2010

If there’s a talking point that sends immigration restrictionists’ blood pressure soaring, it’s the claim that there are jobs “Americans won’t do.”

Poppycock, close-the-borders activists thunder -- round up those immigrants, kick ‘em out, and we’ll prove that Americans are eager to frame houses, mow lawns, care for shut-ins, and clean hotel rooms!

Maybe. Maybe not.

One thing we know for sure, thanks to a cheeky PR campaign, is that very few Americans want to work on farms.

In June, the United Farm Workers of America -- the union founded by Cesar Chavez in 1962 -- launched “Take Our Jobs.” The publicity stunt linked “two issues facing our nation -- high unemployment and undocumented people in the workforce.” Deal with the former, and you solve the latter: “Farm workers are ready to welcome citizens and legal residents who wish to replace them in the field. We will use our knowledge and staff to help connect the unemployed with farm employers.”

But you might want to read the union’s warning before clicking “submit” on its “I want to be a farm worker” web form: “Job may include using hand tools such as knives, hoes, shovels, etc. Duties may include tilling the soil, transplanting, weeding, thinning, picking, cutting, sorting & packing of harvested produce. May set up & operate irrigation equip. Work is performed outside in all weather conditions (Summertime 90+ degree weather) & is physically demanding requiring workers to bend, stoop, lift & carry up to 50 lbs on a regular basis.”

Rough duty, no doubt, but the unemployment rate approaches double digits in the Era of Obama. Surely the website was flooded with job-seekers.

Not exactly.

The union says that after two months of national attention -- including an appearance by president Arturo Rodriguez on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” -- it has received only 9,600 inquires. Of those, only 17 workers accepted employment in agriculture.

Reliable figures don’t exist, but a safe assumption is that around 1.3 million immigrants -- legal and illegal -- work on American farms. So “Take Our Jobs” has replaced 0.001 percent of the nation’s demand for migrant labor with U.S.-born workers.

The pitiful outcome couldn’t have surprised the Immigration Policy Center (IPC), which in a 2009 analysis noted, “Several public-private outreach, training, and placement initiatives (including one in California’s Central Valley in the late 1990’s and another in Washington state in 1996) sought to recruit U.S. workers for agricultural jobs. The California program took place against the backdrop of regional unemployment rates of 9-12%, with some localized unemployment rates exceeding 20%. Yet only a handful of workers were successfully recruited, prompting some county employment agencies to state that they would no longer try to place the unemployed into seasonal or intermittent agricultural jobs.”

It’s not so much the pay, but the working conditions. “About 15 million people in the United States choose non-farm jobs at wages that are actually lower than what they could earn by working alongside farmers and ranchers,” reports the American Farm Bureau’s Ron Gaskill. “The on-farm jobs and opportunities are there, but many workers choose not to take advantage of them.”

Age and education, the IPC argues, are issues as well: “The native-born population is growing older and better educated, and therefore less likely to aspire to farm work.” Beer bellies, bad knees, and college degrees are putting more of us in white-collar gigs, and fewer -- soon to be zero, perhaps -- in fields and orchards.

And the young, able-bodied, but low-skilled? Directly or indirectly, they have the welfare state to provide for their every need. Heritage Foundation research reveals that “means-tested welfare … provides nine different categories of assistance to poor and low-income persons: cash, food, housing, medical care, social services, child development and child care, jobs and training, community development, and targeted federal education programs.” Despite rampant government insolvency, subsidies are getting more generous. There’s no need to head off to merciless toil five mornings a week when your paycheck-earning countrymen have you covered.

“Farm work is tough,” managing editor Matt Milkovich writes in the August issue of Fruit Growers News, “especially picking fruit or vegetables for hours a day. It’s hot, dirty, monotonous and sometimes dangerous. It’s hard physical labor under the sun’s glare -- for not a lot of money. I did a day of farm work a few years ago, and decided sitting on my rear end all day in an air-conditioned office wasn’t such a bad thing.”

Nearly every American agrees. It’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. He lives on a family farm in Connecticut that does not employ migrant laborers.

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