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February 4, 2006
Which Jobs Are They Taking?

The Guardian reports that American crops have been left to rot in the fields, thanks to a sudden dearth of migrant workers for farm work. Is this the result of better border enforcement? No -- it turns out that the illegal immigrants that do the work Americans don't want have decided they don't want them either:

After 15 years working in the fields of California for American farmers, Mr Camacho has found a new life: two months ago he started working at the Golden Acorn Casino.

"It pays better," he says. "In the fields you work all hours, it's cold and hard and you don't get more than $7 [about £4] an hour. With this job I have regular hours, I know when I'm going to work and I know what I'm going to earn."

Mr Camacho is not unique. Agricultural labourers, almost exclusively Latinos and at least two-thirds of them undocumented, are moving into more stable, less harsh employment.

The migration from agriculture is taking its toll on one of the largest industries in the US - and particularly on California's $32bn a year sector. Faced with an exodus of labour to the construction industry as well as to the leisure and retail sectors, farmers are struggling to get their crops in. Ten percent of the cauliflower and broccoli harvest has been left to rot this year, and some estimates put the likely loss of the winter harvest as high as 50%. ...

Mr Lopez - known to admirers and detractors as The Dog - has been working in the Imperial Valley around Calexico for 39 years. Each day he hires 600 to 800 workers, but this year he's been unable to meet the farmers' demands. "There's lots of work and very few people," he says. "We never make up our teams. You could pay them $10 an hour and it wouldn't make any difference." Most of the workers are paid $7.25 an hour, above the minimum wage of $6.75.

This has not been widely reported in the United States and rebuts the Bush Administration's argument that the migrant workers take jobs that Americans are unwilling to do. It also undermines the union allegations that the migrants depress wages -- it looks like salaries have jumped considerably regardless of the influx of labor. That also has been reflected in the labor statistics, where the jobless rate has dropped to its lowest in almost five years, 4.7%.

So what does this mean? It shows that illegal immigrants aren't just interested in working the farms, nobly putting food on our tables and keeping its cost low. They share the same goals as American workers: less work for more pay. American businesses want greater efficiency at less cost, and so continue to employ these workers, even while their salary demands start to rise. It also shows the silliness of raising the minimum wage; in a healthy economy, labor gets its market-based value. Cutting off the flow of extra workers over our southern border would do more to increase the base wages for Americans than any artificial controls imposed by government anyway.

Economic justifications for guest-worker programs do not appear very credible. At some point, we have to wonder why Americans wouldn't choose to work at casinos for anything north of minimum wage. The immigrants have indeed put themselves between legal residents and paying jobs, and we're still not getting the crops harvested. Why would we want to make this a permanent condition?

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 4, 2006 8:58 AM

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