Monday, March 20, 2006

America's Forgotten Agricultural Backbone

This political season, the issue of immigration has been a hot topic. The immigrant debate revolves around two issues; one, under the banner of "the war on terrorism" and the other, on a myth - La Reconquista, Mexico's plan to take back its lost territory. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee took up the issue of immigration reform that may increase the number of incarcerated undocumented immigrants into the millions. However, instituting these draconian measures will be devastating effects to American farmers who rely on migrants workers.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist wieghed in on the immigration debate by introducing his immigration reform bill. Sen. Frist's bill sidesteps the current proposaled Senate bill, "The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006", sponsored by Sen. Arlen Spectrer. Frist's bill mirrors the harsh punishment that was passed in the House, James Sensenbrenner's (R-WI) 'Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005"(HR4437), which would make it a felony for illegal immigrants to be in the United States, impose new penalties on employers who hire them and erect fencing along a third of the U.S.-Mexico border. But it had no temporary worker program. Some of the differences between Frist's bill and the House version, Frist's bill would

  • increase the number of employment related green cards, from 140,000 to 290,000
  • increases unkilled visa from 5000 to 87,00o - still far below the number needed
  • create a new visa class, "investor," and allocate 14,500 visas to this group
  • raises visa cap per country from 7% to 10%,

However, Sen Frist has caused a rift among Republican members, especially Sen. Spectrer who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Sen. Spectrer's version did contain some of the harsh measures from House version, but it also included: "a temporary guest worker program limited to three years with an additional three year extension; increase in the current quotas for both employment and family reunification; and a limited "amnesty" for those here since Dec.2004."

Perhaps the most glaring omission in Frist's bill is that it does not address the issue of the illegal immigrants who are already in the US. The medias focus on crime caused by a few immigrant has only skewed the publics persecption.

What is not often reported is that many migrant workers, which happen to be immgrants, both legal and illegal, have always been essential for agricultural production throughout the US, essentially, they are backbone of the agricultural industry.

A study was conducted in Rep. Sensenbrenner home state of Wisconsin, by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Demography and Ecology, Economic Impact of Migrant Workers on Wisconsin’s Economy. The purpose of the study was to "determine the impact of migrant workers on Wisconsin’s economy."

(more below the fold)

The found that over 90 percent of Wisconsin migrants are Hispanic, mostly coming from Texas' Rio Grande Valley area. However, some do come directly from Mexico and other countries.
Regarding Wisconsin's reason for needing migrant workers:
Hand labor is still needed in the cucumber industry, in apple orchards, and in picking peppers, cabbage, and other vegetable crops that have not been mechanized. Also, because many crops are processed and canned in the state, large numbers of workers are needed in food processing plants during the peak of harvest. Today, as in many past years, Wisconsin ranks first among the states in the production of snap beans for processing (USDA, 2001). Farm wives used to help during harvest; now many are likely to have year-round, off- farm jobs. High school students who used to help during the vacation summer months now may get employment in comfortable airconditioned malls, stores, and restaurants. Thus, employers turn to out-of-state, seasonally available workers.

Farmers and food producers were asked what would happen if migrant workers were not available. Farmers and food processors held different views on this issue:
  1. would be more likely to close their business (49% v. 8%);
  2. to go into other lines of work (28% vs. 0%);
  3. sell their land or equipment (28% vs. 0%); and
  4. they would retire (12% vs. 0%)
The study concluded:
Local economies depend on migrant workers in numerous ways. As a reliable and hardworking workforce, employers count on them to help plant, harvest and pack perishable produce, work double shifts in canneries, and accept wages that are above minimum but below a "living wage."

While in Wisconsin, migrants spend about half of their pay checks for various living expenses, such as food and clothes. This money is usually spent in local stores, thus re-entering the local economy. Migrants also make special purchases while in Wisconsin, which average $750 for a worker traveling alone, and over $1,100 for a family, and may include a used car, stereo and VCR, various home appliances and computers.

In sum, the migrant workforce continues to play a significant role in Wisconsin agriculture, its food industries, and its economy as a whole. Moreover, due to migrants’ spending in the state and the tax revenues that migrants make possible, there are significant positive economic impacts of migrant workers and their families in the State of Wisconsin.
Even though niether bills have become law, farmers are starting to feel the effects of the anti-immigration backlash. According to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Farmers Face Immigrant Workers Shortage farmers are currently suffering through the US due to lack of workers.
Randy Scarbor was counting on the 15 immigrant workers who lived on his farm to harvest his 60-acre sweet-potato crop last fall, but they vanished just as the work got under way. He instead was forced to bring in some less-motivated substitutes for the backbreaking job.

"I wound up hiring some locals that weren't worth hauling to the field," he said. "It was the worst harvest labor in my life and I've been in the farming business 35 years. But we got it in."
some farm groups also believe increased enforcement along Mexican border also may have curbed the number of illegal immigrants with false documents that get "entry-level" jobs like picking fruits and vegetables. There are also indications anti-immigrant civilian groups such as the Minutemen have discouraged farm workers who could enter the country legally.
And it even gets better....
a Farm Bureau study predicts one-third of the nation's fruit-and-vegetable producers would no longer be able to compete with foreign growers, U.S. agriculture would lose $9 billion a year and U.S. consumers eventually would be left with only foreign-grown produce in their supermarkets.

Of the nation's 3 million agricultural workers, about 2 million are members of farm families and 1 million are hired, including an estimated 500,000 who aren't authorized to work in this country, according to the Farm Bureau.

The anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies feel these problems can be easily solved if farmers are willing to pay competitive wages.

However, California's Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association, disagrees and are saying they are feeling the effects NOW!
Labor shortage is very real for farmers in the valley, a desert region north of the Mexican border with 450,000 acres of irrigated farmland. The Imperial Valley supplies 90 percent of the nation's winter vegetables, such as lettuce, spinach and broccoli....The increased border security, plus rumors about border vigilantes, was so intimidating that even workers who could cross legally decided to stay home.
The political backlash to the current economic hardships are once again falling on minority workers and their families. Immigrants are constantly scapegoated for the US economic woes and are subjected to racist attacks and severe immigration restrictions.

The US has historically been cruel to their Southern border immigrants and mass deportation has always been the US answer whenever, the US is ever faced with an econmic hardship.

Both legal and illegal immigrants, are known for working the most undesirable and lowest paid jobs in the US, however, they are part of the essential workforce that is essential to the US economy. Many immigrant workers are also employed through the informal, or underground jobs which are also part of the US economy. These unreported jobs include auto cleaning, landscape maintenance, hotels, janitorial, domestic services, manufacturing, construction, restaurant, and retail services. By conducting mass deportation, the US economy will continue suffer not repair it as many like to believe. Wages will continue to fall as unemployment will continue to rise. The quality of life in the US, which is currently deteriorating at the present time, will fall to even lower levels. Widespread economic and social dislocation will rise along the border and through out the farming communities. When will America wake up, mass deportations are not the answer. It never has and it never will be the answer.

1 comment:

inthedumpster said...

that is a great diary, I hope your cross post that at Booman Tribune...I agree with your analysis.

aka americanforliberty