D. Dowd Muska


No Farm Workers, No Food

November 17, 2011

Savor the memory of strawberries, tomatoes, peaches, honey, eggs, and beef purchased this year at farmers’ markets.

In 2012, local agricultural products might be difficult to find. For that matter, supermarket produce and meat -- food shipped from anywhere in the U.S. -- could be in short supply.

No, “climate change” won’t ruin crops and decimate livestock next year. Immigration insanity is to blame. The threat manifests itself in two ways: Washington’s refusal to accept the desperate need for foreign-born field hands, and a looming dictate that every employer use an Internet-based system to check worker residency.

About 1.6 million seasonal laborers toil on the nation’s farms and ranches. The tasks they perform are sometimes dangerous, often sweltering, and always monotonous. Our forebears would have kept whining about such burdens to a minimum, but in the 21st century, Americans have grown accustomed to cushier ways to obtain a paycheck. Speaking to Bloomberg Businessweek, an illegal alien -- sorting tomatoes in Alabama -- described the native-born citizens who give his gig a try: “They come one day, and don’t show up the next.”

Men and women fleeing hardship in the Third World aren’t so picky. They do show up, despite the dangers involved with jumping the border, the risk of ICE raids, and living conditions that middle-class campers wouldn’t accept. Frank Gasperini, of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, estimated that “at least 75 percent of [non-authorized] workers in labor-intensive ag are falsely documented. The real number could exceed 80 percent.”

The federal government has a “solution” for employers looking to hire legally. It’s the H-2A program, a counterpart to the better-known H-1B allowance for highly skilled personnel. Not surprisingly, the feds’ scheme for agribusinesses’ migrants is costly and inefficient. In May, Matt Milkovich, the managing editor of Fruit Growers News, profiled the compliance challenges facing New England farmers: “Six years ago, it cost $35 to submit a petition for H-2A workers. Today, the cost is $325. The form, which used to be a couple of pages, is now 170 pages long. The paperwork has to be filed with the appropriate state agency. If that agency approves, the next step is filing with the U.S. Department of Labor in Chicago, then U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in California. After all that, the port of entry in Florida must approve.”

H-2A’s red tape leaves growers and ranchers with a Hobson’s choice. They could raise wages, in the hope that legal residents apply for jobs. Sounds good, but few agricultural employers can hike labor costs and remain economically viable. The price of diesel is a killer, unemployment taxes have gone up, and new EPA regulations lurk. In addition, the market for fruits, vegetables, and meat is global. Competition is fierce. (As it should be.)

The other option is to do what most do now, and bring on illegals. They’re reliable, they’re here, and they’re grateful for wages that beat whatever opportunities exist back home.

That’s why the Legal Workforce Act is one of the worst bills currently before Congress. H.R. 2885, which enjoys lockstep Republican support and adamantine Democratic opposition, mandates that every employer access “E-Verify” to prove that new hires are in the country legally. For Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the House Judiciary Committee’s chairman, the legislation is great politics. “While 24 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed,” the fedpol thundered in June, “seven million illegal immigrants work in the U.S. These jobs should go to legal workers.”

The Wall Street Journal posed an inconvenient question for close-the-borders blowhards: Why should businesses become “the enforcement agent for U.S. immigration laws”? Entrepreneurs, particularly those with small firms, concur -- the Oregon Association of Nurseries, Utah Manufacturers Association, Kansas Business Coalition, San Antonio Area Tourism Council, Tennessee Jobs Coalition, Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, and Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida are just a handful of the local- and state-based entities that fall somewhere between skeptical and militantly opposed to mandatory use of E-Verify.

The Legal Workforce Act’s coercion should be replaced by the realism of the lamentably dormant Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act. “AgJOBS” would radically revamp H-2A, and permit migrant laborers to obtain legal status. Background checks would be conducted, taxes and fines paid, and permanent residency would be dangled as an incentive for aliens to stay out of trouble.

Until the inescapable, but still far-off day when able-bodied Americans get booted off the dole, immigrants will pick produce, drive tractors, and shovel manure. They’re willing to do the work. We should let them.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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