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October 4, 2006
A Fine Whine About Immigration Reform

The Washington Post offers up a typical doomsday scenario in order to highlight the lack of progress on comprehensive immigration reform, but winds up demonstrating everything wrong about the reformers' economic arguments. Sonya Geis allows growers full vent about their disappearing work force, but never quite makes the connection between their labor shortfall and the compensation they offer:

Bins of Granny Smith apples towered over two conveyor belts at P-R Farms' packing plant. But only one belt moved. P-R Farms, like farms up and down California and across the nation, does not have enough workers to process its fruit.

"We're short by 50 to 75 people," said Pat Ricchiuti, 59, the third-generation owner of P-R Farms. "For the last three weeks, we're running at 50 percent capacity. We saw this coming a couple years ago, but last year and this year has really been terrible."

Farmers of all types of specialty crops, from almonds to roses, have seen the immigrant labor supply they depend on dry up over the past year. Increased border security and competition from other industries are driving migrant laborers out of the fields, farmers say.

Earlier this year, many farmers were optimistic about finding a solution in the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, or AgJobs. The bill, proposed by Sens. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), would allow undocumented agricultural workers already in the United States to become legal permanent residents and would streamline the current guest-worker program. In March and September, hundreds of growers traveled to the Capitol to lobby for the bill.

But deep divisions within the Republican Party have stalled immigration reform. Although legislation to build a 700-mile fence along the border passed the House and Senate, the AgJobs proposal has languished.

In reality, however, nothing has changed on the border from two years ago except for more enforcement personnel, most of which came into effect this year. Why have the workers disappeared from the fields? After all, we have 12 million illegals in the country now, and some estimates put it closer to 20 million. They don't need to worry about crossing the Rio Grande to get to the jobs, so why the shortfall now?

I don't often quote James Carville, but in this case it applies: It's the economy, stupid.

In the last three years (since the Bush tax cuts!), we have added over 5 million jobs to the economy, far outpacing the growth in population. That puts pressure on entry-level wages, or in the case of growers, wages below entry level as well. The illegals already in the US have discovered jobs with better compensation than field work, and they have left agriculture as a result.

Most employers would simply raise wages to make their jobs more attractive, or they would find ways to automate and eliminate the need for some of those positions. This apparently doesn't apply to agriculture, which wants the government to supply them with foreign labor at ridiculously low cost. The AgJobs bill isn't really the problem. After all, that bill applies to people already inside the United States. Those same people could work now for growers without that bill. They just choose not to do so because they can get better jobs elsewhere.

No, the growers are unhappy because the federal government has become more effective at stopping illegal entry into the US. And when the government does give them an opportunity to hire foreign workers, they still complain. The H2A program allows growers to hire migrants legally, but the cost is higher and the risk is a little greater. Once across the border, the growers have to pay and house them, and if the harvest is off, they wind up paying for labor they don't need. Again, though, it's difficult to see how comprehensive immigration reform corrects this. Unless we fling open the borders, they still will have to use programs like H2A if they can't convince people already in the US to do their work.

Geis does discuss market-based wages, but only to give growers another excuse to blame the government for their problem. The farmers interviewed for the article claim that they pay the highest wages they can afford. However, almost in the same breath, Geis says that as much as one-third of some crops rotted in the fields from lack of labor to harvest it. That drives up prices more than moderate wage adjustments, so it's difficult to see the problem in adjusting for the labor market when farmers adjust for the sales market all the time.

The farmers in this article don't want comprehensive immigration reform, or normalization of any kind. That doesn't solve their labor problems. They want a free flow of dirt-cheap labor, which means they want open borders and no enforcement. Agriculture wants the federal government to rescind the economics of an open labor market in order to keep them from making the necessary changes to secure their work force. For the moment, at least, Congress has made the correct decision to ignore them.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 4, 2006 5:10 AM

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