D. Dowd Muska


Still Waiting to Legitimize Farm Laborers

February 28, 2013

Which is likelier to occur first:

a) A near-total elimination of the welfare state.

b) The cultivation and harvest of 2013’s crop of fruits and vegetables.

Okay, that wasn’t difficult. But it’s an effective way to frame the challenge facing many American farmers.

According to the National Council of Agricultural Employers, at least three-quarters of its industry’s seasonal workers are illegal aliens. Why do growers turn to criminals to meet labor needs? The primary culprit is the unwillingness of citizens to perform hot, repetitive, and occasionally dangerous tasks. Planting, weeding, spraying, pruning, thinning, picking, and packing can’t be done in air-conditioned offices that provide massages and gourmet cuisine. So Americans aren’t interested.

Raise wages, immigration restrictionists nag, and properly documented job-seekers will gladly take over. It’s a “solution” based on the dodgy assumption that farms have piles of cash lying around to substantially boost compensation. (Some might. Most don’t.) Besides, municipalities, states, and the federal government bestow dozens of goodies on low-skilled Americans. Housing subsidies, “free” healthcare, energy assistance, food stamps, and “disability” checks tend to dampen one’s tolerance for sweat, bugs, snakes, dirt, sunburns, and muscle aches.

Farmers have a legal method to obtain labor from abroad. The H2-A program “allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs.” But the system is cumbersome and costly. In conversations with farmers, recounted Fruit Growers News’s Matt Milkovich, “I have yet to hear any of them describe the H-2A application process as ‘easy.’ The complaints I hear mostly revolve around how much the program costs, all the paperwork involved and the delays in getting needed workers.”

As the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh outlined in a January policy analysis, H2-A requires that employers provide more than the right forms. They must furnish “transportation to their farms as well as to the next workplace” and “federally inspected and adequate housing, meals, and/or facilities for migrants to prepare their own meals.” The mandates are odd, given that neither food nor shelter are decreed for high-tech and temporary nonagricultural guest workers. (In the U.S., the market supplies most housing and food desires. Why must farmers become landlords and restaurateurs?)

Citizens unwilling to do the job, and a regulatory nightmare to procure employees legitimately. No wonder farmers go with illegals. For now, at least. Seal-the-border demagogues want it to remain uncommon knowledge, but the immigration-industrial complex is immense. According to the Center for American Progress: “Through administration policy, congressional appropriations, and passage of … legislation such as the Secure Fence Act, the federal government has deployed massive enforcement resources at the border and in the interior.” A study by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that “the U.S. government spends more on its immigration enforcement agencies than on all its other principal criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined. In FY 2012, spending ... reached nearly $18 billion. This amount exceeds by approximately 24 percent total spending for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), which stood at $14.4 billion in FY 2012.” States are getting tougher, too.

As a result of the crackdowns, agriculture has suffered the loss of hundreds of millions -- perhaps billions -- of dollars due to worker shortages. The University of Georgia estimated that the cost of unharvested crops in its state in 2011 was $140 million. In September, a farmer in California’s Pajaro Valley complained of “the worst labor problem I’ve seen in 30 years.” According to the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform’s Craig J. Regelbrugge, asparagus growers in Washington “plowed under 15 percent of the crop this year because of a shortage of pickers.”

Boneheaded immigration policies don’t spell Armageddon for American agriculture, but they do make purchases in the produce aisle more expensive. They depresses demand for skilled positions, too -- many engineers, factory workers, mechanics, chemists, and biologists owe their livelihoods to farming. Finally, when agriculture suffers, so does trade. America’s fields, orchards, and vineyards are star exporters. The value of fruit shipments grew by an inflation-adjusted 76 percent between 2001 and 2011. (Asia’s appetite for apples, grapes, and cherries is voracious.)

It’s tough to “steal” a job from someone who doesn’t want it. As Washington lurches toward a sweeping immigration-reform package, fedpols ought to understand the urgent need to combat labor shortages in agriculture. The only alternative -- broad, permanent cuts to the welfare state -- is, at present, politically untenable.

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

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