EDITORIAL: Curbing seasonal workers not a fix for immigration

The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City

Aug. 21–SOME Republicans want to not only reduce illegal immigration, but also cut back on legal immigration to the United States. Many who favor even more restrictive immigration policies argue a reduction in legal immigration will generate higher wages, particularly for low-skill, native-born workers in entry-level jobs.

Those critics have it only half right. In agriculture, reduced immigration has raised wages, but the benefit has gone to the remaining immigrant laborers — because native-born workers still won’t take those jobs. Meanwhile, crops are rotting in the fields due to associated workforce shortages, increasing food prices for all.

If this is how some politicians want to “help” native-born workers, what would happen if they deliberately sought to harm them?

Admittedly, there’s surface appeal to the immigration-restriction argument. A report issued by the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, chaired by anti-immigration hawk Jeff Sessions, R- Ala., declared, “During the low-immigration period from 1948-1973, real median compensation for U.S. workers increased more than 90 percent. By contrast, real average hourly wages were lower in 2014 than they were in 1973, four decades earlier.”

Yet that attributes virtually all wage improvement (or stagnation) to immigration policy when other factors are also at play. (The U.S. economy grew after World War II thanks in part to Europe’s devastation.) It also treats the economic growth of the Ronald Reagan ’80s as illusory, which should be a red flag for conservatives.

Yet few will deny that limiting worker supply should boost wages for remaining applicants. In agriculture, The Wall Street Journal reports that scenario has played out as expected. Crackdowns have reduced illegal immigration while bureaucratic challenges have slowed the flow of legal immigrant workers. But this hasn’t benefited the broader economy.

The Journal reports one strawberry/raspberry farm in Washington state increased worker pay 20 percent, yet that farm drew fewer than 60 percent of employees needed on harvest days.

One large lemon grower based in California and Arizona boosted retirement benefits 20 percent, built homes that were rented to seasonal workers at below-market rates, and raised wages 20 percent to roughly $17 an hour. Yet that company couldn’t attract enough workers to harvest crops. Last year, it lost 5 percent of crops; so far this year, 8 percent has rotted in fields.

According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, U.S. fruit and vegetable production is falling 9.5 percent (or $3.1 billion) per year due to labor shortages.

Basically, many agriculture producers are paying workers far above minimum wage, far above wages offered for other low-skill, entry-level jobs, and they still can’t get native-born workers to do the work.

This isn’t shocking. An American Farm Bureau report notes that a 2010 survey found 68 percent of 36,000 domestic workers referred to farm employers by state agencies “did not accept jobs offered to them” and, in many cases, accepted positions in other fields that paid less. Farms resort to immigrant labor out of necessity, not because agribusiness wants to stick it to the little man.

Thus, rather than benefiting domestic workers’ incomes, immigration reductions have simply reduced crop yields.

The current U.S. immigration system has many flaws; the provision of seasonal, low-skill workers is not among them. The need for those workers is real. Their labor benefits all Americans, and their numbers should not be arbitrarily restricted.


(c)2015 The Oklahoman

Visit The Oklahoman at www.newsok.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

pdf_rtf_top mobile-amservice-logo