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"It's not just money that keeps Americans out of those fields," argues Libby Whitley, an agricultural labor consultant who until recently was a labor specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. "I don't know what journalists make. But let's say it's $100,000 a year. OK, I'll give you a nice raise. I'll pay you $110,000 a year to be a migrant farm worker.
"But you'll leave your friends and family. You'll live in a house trailer in an orchard, do your cooking in a group kitchen. And the job will only last for three months. Will you do it?...
"It's not just the pay, it's the nature of the work. It's outdoors, it's often in unpleasant weather, it's physical, it's hard. It hurts your back. It's short term. And you can't even guarantee tenure of work. If there's a bad freeze or a hailstorm just as a crop is ready to be picked, you're not guaranteed anything. You go home empty-handed. That's the nature of nature. And that's the nature of farm work."
Throughout most of American history, there's only been one group willing to consistently take on that kind of labor: Recent immigrants. People with little education, few skills, and only a smattering of English, but who bring broad backs and the conviction that they're building a better life for their families. (There was, of course, one group of people who kept working in fields for generations after they arrived in America. The people Jose Guadalupe made reference to: slaves.)
Whitley has seen them on farms all over the country: the Mexicans toiling in the avocado and watermelon fields in California, the Jamaicans cutting cane and picking apples in the South, Haitians roaming Florida's citrus orchards, the Hmong tribesmen from Laos working in Minnesota dairy farms. "I even visited one county in upstate New York--I'm not going to tell you which one, because they don't need any trouble with INS--where the work force was predominantly illegal Polish immigrants," she says. "They didn't have much education and they didn't speak much English. So they did what immigrants have always done--they went and picked cabbage."
The crops and the skin tones of the people picking them may change from region to region, but Whitley says one thing is always constant: The immigrants are hard workers.
"You will not find many of the farmers I know bashing the foreign worker population," she says. "They will tell you quite honestly that they're excellent workers and decent people. Most farmers will tell you immigrants have a strong commitment to the work ethic. In fact, I'm always trying to hush farmers because they talk about how much better the immigrants are than U.S. workers. I'm always afraid they're going to get charged with some kind of discrimination."
Oh, one other thing: Getting rid of immigrant farm workers, no matter how much it cost American consumers, might not save any jobs for U.S. workers anyway.
"The more expensive labor gets, the more practical it becomes to mechanize," says Dalton Yancey of the Florida Sugar Cane League. His own industry is in the process of shedding the last of 10,000 foreign cane-cutters, in part because the bureaucratic hassles of getting them into the country were becoming too much of a headache. Their work will be turned over to machines. That's the way much of U.S. agriculture is headed.
"Corn and all the feed grains, they can be done mechanically," Yancey notes. "Potatoes, carrots, radishes, red beets, too. Cotton. Pecans can be shaken out of trees, and so can almonds."
Of course, there are some things--mostly fruits, which have to maintain a pretty appearance for the consumer--that can be harvested only by hand. But Yancey doubts that those crops will ever be picked by Americans, either.
"I suppose there's some level of pay at which Americans would be willing to do that work," he says. "The problem is you could fly fruit in from Chile cheaper. I suspect that we'd just do away with those crops in the United States if we somehow lost access to immigrant labor."
To put it another way, immigrant farm workers don't take jobs from anyone. Many of them do work that, if they didn't exist, simply wouldn't be done, at least not in the United States. And agriculture is not the only sector of the economy where it happens.
Some of the work is, arguably, trivial. In Miami, for instance, a lot of recent immigrants set up shop at gas stations, washing cars for $10 apiece and splitting the take with the station owner. Nothing high-tech about it--just a guy with a bucket, a sponge, and a willingness to stand around in wet clothes all day wiping down other people's cars. And if he wasn't there, offering his labor so cheaply, most of his customers would simply wash their own cars in their driveways at home.
"Whenever people voluntarily hire someone to do something, the benefit they receive is called consumer surplus," says Timothy Taylor, managing editor of the American Economic Association's Journal of Economic Perspectives, who is fascinated by the economic reverberations of immigration. "This is one of the reasons so many people in California have gardeners, because immigrants are there to offer the service inexpensively. If the immigrants didn't exist, maybe you wouldn't have had your yard done or your car washed, because it just wouldn't be worth it."