No Fruits, No Shirts, No Service

The real-world consequences of closed borders

(Page 2 of 7)

"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."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • nfl jerseys||


  • سهمي||


  • Spiny Norman||

    Sez you.

  • pan fried wylie||

    Once we've gotten rid of the immigrants, who is going to pick the lettuce and tomatoes?

    They can pick em back in their 3rd world hellholes and send us the results. We get no-immigrants and vegetables, and they get royally fucked in the ass. Win/Win. For us I mean. Fuck them, that's why.

  • Brandybuck||

    But what about the tariffs on those vegetables? We can't have free trade, so we have to do everything possible to keep them out.

  • anon||

    At least the bots post in the threads nobody cares about.

  • Almanian!||

    The bots say, "All ur threads are belong to us lolwut kthxbai"

  • Brandybuck||

    Remember when Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell championed Pat Buchanan as the Great White Libertarian Hope? Some of you kids are too new and think of Murray as a wise saint of yesteryear, and Lew as the kindly pope of his church. But some of us are old enough to remember them trying to actively fuse libertarianism and paleo-conservatism together. Pat Buchanan was not, is not, and never will be, a libertarian.

  • MappRapp||

    Jumpin Jack Flash is all over that man!

  • Coyote||

    Eliminate minimum-wage laws. Employers have an incentive to hire illegals because they will work for far less than minimum wage.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Every year more and more low- or un-skilled jobs get robotizied out of the labor market. This year, the mechanical alternatives to burger flippers and lettuice pickers have already been invented and just need to roll out.

    Will we need to invent a new class of jobs that "No American will do" to justify the illegal underclass? Nobody is indespensible, not even those with the worst jobs.

  • Rabban||

    Well we currently have this massive welfare state, so going back to the welcome all takers model is probably a bad idea. Until we roll back social programs to 1920's levels, then 1920's immigration policies are a bad idea from a practical perspective. But we are going to do the exact opposite, we are going to have more immigration and ever expanding social programs until we are completely, totally, and hopelessly broke. A nation of Detroits with millions of newly minted, formerly illegal (though a significant number of them were already voting), Democrat voters demanding other people's money and more regulations preventing them from economic activity to make their own.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.