D. Dowd Muska


Targeting Illegals Puts Agriculture in the Crosshairs

May 17, 2012

About 75 percent of American agriculture’s grunt workers are foreigners who illegally jump the southern border.

That’s why federal and state immigration polices are putting farms at risk.

In December, Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan stated that when Alabama’s “new immigration law went into effect, tens of thousands of Latino workers moved out of state, presumably to avoid arrest due to lack of proper documentation. As a result, many farmers and agribusinesses, such as producers of poultry and catfish products as well as nursery growers, were left without a sufficient number of workers. Indeed, last summer and fall, we witnessed produce rotting in the fields throughout Alabama, again due to a lack of workers.”

Dale Foreman, an apple grower in Wenatchee, Washington, told Congress in February that during the 2011 harvest, his orchard “experienced the worst labor shortages I have ever seen.”

Problems have persisted into the new year. A May 9 update from the California Farm Bureau Federation found that “labor shortages are springing up around the state. The farther north of the California-Mexico border one looks, the greater the concern that the number of agricultural workers needed for harvest work may fall short.”

The crisis stems from a multi-pronged assault. Earlier this month The Wall Street Journal reported, “Since January 2009, the Obama administration has audited at least 7,533 employers suspected of hiring illegal labor and imposed about $100 million in administrative and criminal fines -- more audits and penalties than were imposed during the entire George W. Bush administration.” Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 faces a possible stamp of approval from the U.S. Supreme Court. Increasingly, state and local governments are requiring the use of the federal E-Verify system to determine new employees’ “eligibility” to work.

Immigration restrictionists swoon over the wave of enforcement actions, and have answers for farmers’ personnel plight: Use the federal guest-worker program, hire citizens, and mechanize.

Easy recommendations to make. Implementation is close to impossible. The H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program is slow, costly, and a bureaucratic nightmare. Employing residents with the proper papers isn’t a viable option, because Americans have zero interest in farmwork. Seasonal jobs that are physically demanding, frequently hot, and always monotonous doesn’t appeal to a populace accustomed to full-year gigs, air conditioning, and keyboard-tapping.

John Aplin, who grows 200 acres of produce on the Alabama-Florida border, hasn’t had much success with native-born hires. “They’ll work a morning and come up at lunchtime and say, ‘I’m done,’” he told the Associated Press.

Jamie Holland, a Mississippi nursery owner, put it more bluntly: “The work ethic in the United States is the problem.”

Even boosted wages haven’t lured locals. In Foreman’s congressional testimony, he described a radio recruitment campaign that offered “up to $150 per day to help us pick our apples. Even with the barrage of radio ads we were only able to recruit 3 additional pickers and we needed over 100. … While there were plenty of unemployed people in the area, picking is hard work and most people who are collecting unemployment have no desire to lift heavy picking bags full of apples all day long.”

Technology can help, but some agricultural tasks defy automation. A 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that the “judgment and dexterity of experienced farmworkers are often difficult for a machine to mimic, particularly when crops do not mature evenly, and workers must determine what can be harvested during multiple passes through fields and orchards. A nonselective mechanical harvester that harvests everything in the field, regardless of maturity, will reduce useable yield per acre. In addition, the machines must be designed so that they do not create economically unacceptable levels of damage to the harvested produce or plants.”

So there it is. Illegal aliens are being targeted as never before, while American agriculture continues to rely on a horde of undocumented workers to plant, tend, and harvest the nation’s crops.

It’s an absurd, unsustainable juxtaposition. Short of open borders, which is as popular an idea as the creation of the U.S. Department of Puppy Strangulation, the solution is a streamlined guest-worker system for millions of migrant laborers willing to play by the rules.

Without such a sensible reform, look for lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, sweet corn, peppers, peaches, apples, and all the other delights offered at farmers’ markets to get much pricier.

Polls show that aggressive immigration enforcement enjoys broad public approval. The labor shortage that crackdowns have inflicted on agriculture may, in time, force Americans to rethink measures designed to “protect our jobs.”

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

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