Free Minds & Free Markets

No Fruits, No Shirts, No Service

The real-world consequences of closed borders

Reason, April 1995Reason, April 1995The last pickup truck pulled away from the parking lot, and the men settled back onto the folding chairs of the little cottage in central San Jose where they wait for offers of day labor. The morning rush was over; nothing to do now but wait until after lunch, when a few more contractors and landscapers might stop by looking for a couple of strong backs for the afternoon.

It was a crisp autumn morning, just three weeks before Californians were to vote on Proposition 187, a measure that some hoped—and others feared—might call a halt to the nightly march of undocumented immigrants across the border from Mexico. Even so, the dozen or so men in the cottage—mojados, wets, illegals, every single one—were surprised that a visitor wanted to talk about 187.

"It doesn't have much to do with us," said Jose Guadalupe, who at 64 years old has crossed the border more times than he can count over the past four decades. "The immigrants have always been here, and they always will be, come what may. We'll come by water, or land, or whatever." The other men nodded in agreement.

But suppose, the visitor said, suppose the Americans built a fence all along the border that was 50 feet tall.

"Not high enough," interjected Guadalupe.

OK, OK, 100 feet high, or 200 feet, or a thousand—however tall it would have to be to really plug that border. What would happen then? The men contemplated this idea in bemused silence. "Well," Guadalupe finally replied in a grave voice, "probably then the Americans would have to put black people back into slavery. Because we're the ones who work in all the fields here, picking lettuce and tomatoes and avocados. Americans don't do it. Unless you guys get people from Japan and Russia, who else is going to do it?"

So far, no American politician has been willing to say that if stopping illegal immigration requires repealing the 13th Amendment, then by God that's what we need to do. But just about anything else goes. National ID cards, computerized federal databases, doctors arresting their patients on the operating table, requiring teachers to rat on their students and encouraging the students to rat on their parents, pitching newborn babies back across the border: The Cold War had nothing on this new battle against immigration.

In fact, Bill Clinton last August officially declared that pulling up the national gangplanks now takes precedence over the final skirmishes of the Cold War. He asked Fidel Castro (in return for what under-the-table promises, we still don't know) to put Cuba's secret police to work stopping Cuban refugees from coming to the United States on rafts. It is as if West Germany, as the Berlin Wall was collapsing, had offered a bounty to East German border guards for every fleeing refugee they could gun down.

Although Proposition 187 and Clinton's creation of prison camps for Haitian and Cuban refugees have put the battle against illegal immigrants in the spotlight, legal immigrants are scarcely more popular. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, the newly triumphant Republican Party's most influential voice on immigration, has promised to introduce a bill slashing the number of legal immigrants 25 percent. And that makes him an immigration dove. Last year a House bill that would cut the number of legal immigrants by 65 percent immediately and 85 percent in the long run attracted 73 co-sponsors from both parties, the single most popular immigration measure introduced during the past Congress. Said Pat Buchanan, the bill's principal champion: "If Republican leaders are frightened by political correctness from doing this, then it is a sign of what is endemic in the Republican Party; it won't touch an issue that somebody may say is evil and hard-hearted."

The most peculiar thing about Buchanan's comment is the implication that it's "politically correct" to support immigration. Quite the contrary: The fashion across the political spectrum, from the tree-huggers at the Sierra Club to Rush Limbaugh's pugnacious "ditto-heads," is to hammer away at immigrants. They steal our jobs. They use up our national resources. They dilute our culture. The timid few who demur are almost universally scorned as ivory-tower knuckleheads who mistake poetry for policy. They aren't out there in the real world. They don't "focus on the immigration influx in practice, as opposed to libertarian theory," as National Review acidly puts it.

But if there's anyone who's neglecting the real world, it's the people who want to cut immigration. Because they don't answer Jose Guadalupe's question. Once we've gotten rid of the immigrants, who is going to pick the lettuce and tomatoes?

A little agricultural math exercise: Of the million or so people who make up the full-time farm work force in the United States—those who work 100 days or more a year—the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 60 percent are foreign-born. (Some labor specialists say as many as half a million may be illegal aliens, the scourge of the scourge to anti-immigrationists.)

Their average wage is around $6.00 an hour. How much would it cost to find native-born Americans to replace them in the fields? Let's say $12 an hour, which most agriculture experts think is a very conservative estimate. That means wages will jump 100 percent.

Multiply the doubling of wages times 20 percent, since economists say labor costs represent about one-fifth of food prices. Assuming that demand holds constant, what it all adds up to is a 40 percent increase in the cost of farm produce. If America's 68 million households spend an average of $10 a week on fruits and vegetables, that's $272 million a week (or, if you prefer, $14.1 billion a year) as the price we pay for running immigrants out of just one small sector of the U.S. economy.

Not that it would work.

"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."

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.

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  • 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.

  • Bill1966||

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

    One of the arguments against ending slavery was similar. The abolitionists were accused of denying economic realities. Who's going to pick the cotton? Do you idiots know where your sugar comes from? Why, you'd wipe out whole economic sectors if you ended slavery!

    It is not accurate to say immigrants are doing work that citizens don't want to do. Immigrants are willing to put up with pay and conditions that people in the country legally won't tolerate. Among other bad things, the immigration status quo has allowed employers to do wholesale end runs around all of our laws regarding fair treatment and workplace safety. it is ludicrous for those who defend this to consider themselves champions of illegal immigrants.

    If my cheap apples come at the cost of other poor bastards busting their butts until they're old men at 40, they SHOULD be more expensive. I cringe every time I hear the "who's going to do the dirty work" argument. It's much to close to justifications for slavery.


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