Who Grew Your Tree?

If you like Christmas trees, thank an immigrant


`Tis the season for Christmas trees and immigration reform, two issues that are rarely considered in the same thought. But they are intricately interconnected in important ways: As with most agricultural products, growers rely heavily on immigrant labor to bring the trees to market.

Just a couple of days before the lighting of the Capitol Christmas Tree, the House of Representatives began debating legislation that would, among other things, make living illegally in the United States an aggravated felony, tighten borders and hike fines for paperwork violations by employers of legal and illegal immigrants by as much as 2,500 percent. The Senate plans to take up the issue early next year, and President Bush has begun to lay out a vague, but already controversial, plan for a guest worker program.

While politicians put presents under their trees they should think about workers such as Buca, a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant who works in North Carolina, where one out of every five Christmas trees sold in the United States is grown. It is grueling, backbreaking work, the sort that most of us born in the United States would never do, for any amount of money. The typical worker makes between $6 and $8 an hour to cut, stack and haul trees on a mountainside. During the harvest season, they routinely pull shifts that last 16 hours, often in harsh weather.Buca (we've omitted his last name to protect his family's identity) has an H-2A temporary agricultural visa, which allows him to work for about 10 months out of the year, while Christmas trees are being grown or cut. Every December, after the harvest, he has to leave the country—and his wife and two children—returning only in February. Buca's wife, who works as a nanny, is an illegal immigrant, so she stays behind in North Carolina with their two children rather than risk not being able to get back into the United States.

Buca and his wife arrived in North Carolina in 1994, leaving behind $1-an-hour jobs in a Florida orange grove. Despite their long history of employment in the United States—and even though their kids are native-born U.S. citizens—they have no serious shot at permanent resident green cards.

Given her undocumented status, Buca's wife simply can't risk applying without fear of arrest or deportation. Her lack of legal working status is something she shares with more than half of the nation's agricultural workers. Most of the people who raise your turkey in Minnesota, dig your potatoes in Idaho, pick your corn in Illinois, and more are illegal immigrants.

Buca can apply for a green card, but he is competing against an estimated 5 million to 6 million other Mexican immigrants. Current law caps annual immigration from any one country at 7 percent of the total, so these millions are competing for fewer than 26,000 permanent resident green cards allotted annually for Mexicans who don't have U.S.-citizen spouses, parents or children able to sponsor them. The system provides only 140,000 spots for employment-based green card applicants—and only 40,000 of those are for immigrants with education at the baccalaureate level or below. Just 10,000 permanent resident visas a year cover the unskilled jobs that most Mexican immigrants fill.

There is something not simply wrong but immoral with an immigration policy that does not make full room for workers such as Buca.

One promising, if incremental, reform was last year's Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, which was endorsed by the National Christmas Tree Association and various labor unions. The "Agjobs" bill would greatly expand the temporary visa program and give workers and their families a shot at permanent residence by granting green cards to immigrants who worked at least 360 days in agriculture over six years after the legislation is passed. Last April, a majority in the Senate passed the bill, but it fell short of the 60 votes needed to override a Republican filibuster.

As politicians gather around Christmas trees for photo-ops and family gatherings, they should take a minute to reflect on who grows those great symbols of generosity and brotherhood. After the holidays, they should craft a policy that welcomes all hard-working Americans, regardless of their country of origin.

Reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie is the editor of Choice: The Best of Reason. Jesse James DeConto is Roy H. Park Master's Fellow at the University of North Carolina and a Phillips Foundation fellow.

This column was first distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.