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FARM AND FOOD FILE

By Staff | Sep 11, 2015

To hear most of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates tell it, the nation’s biggest problem is illegal immigration.

That’s right; it’s not the incendiary Middle East, the ever-on-edge global financial markets, ballooning overpopulation, rapid climate change, or terrorism either here or abroad.

It’s illegal immigration.

It’s so bad, shouts poll-climbing billionaire Donald Trump, that the only solution to this problem is that “They’ve got to go.”

“They,” noted conservative columnist George Will in late August, are “approximately 11.3 million illegal immigrants.” If all were gathered to be deported, he said of the Trumpster’s big-sweep plan, the group would be “94 times larger than the wartime internment of 117,000 persons of Japanese descent.”

No one in U.S. agriculture has a hard count on how many undocumented workers are employed in American food production.

Recent estimates, however, suggest roughly 70 percent of the 1.2 million employed by American farms have no legal right be in the U.S.

If accurate, estimated the American Farm Bureau Federation in 2012, the last time such a mass deportation strategy was discussed (and, not coincidentally, the last presidential election year), the exodus would bring “labor shortages that will result in losses of up to $9 billion” to American agriculture.

Ironically, however, many U.S. farmers don’t see expanding legal immigration as a good solution to agriculture’s chronic labor shortage, according to a February 2015, National Public Radio report by Dan Charles.

Instead, Charles discovered, farmers’ loyalties are deeply split – openly looking the other way when they hire willing farmworkers they suspect are undocumented because the farmers need the laborers.

Besides, one grower told him, “They’re just trying to feed their families.”

But, the grower added, “giving more legal rights to those workers” is probably bad for his business. He believes that if some of the workers working in agriculture gain legal status, then the pressure is off. “Now they can go to the cities and look for construction jobs, or manufacturing jobs.”

While there’s little data to back up that belief, Charles explained, a key reason undocumented workers do flock to U.S. farms is that rural America is “a good place to hide from the authorities.”

The hiding, of course, carries a price; there is little job safety and even fewer job benefits for undocumented workers and their families.

You and I, however, profit from this not-so-hidden labor force. Undocumented workers – including women and children – pick most of the nation’s fruit and vegetables, slaughter most of our livestock, milk a growing number of our cows, and mow millions of acres of our lawns.

They are the key source of cheap American labor for our food system and losing any portion of it will cost us dearly.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture put a number on what that loss would be if, as some the presidential candidates that year proposed, we patched our national sieve to keep these mostly brown hands away from our farms and out of our cities.

According to USDA, if the U.S. cut the number of undocumented workers within our borders by half, or 5.8 million, “Fruit, tree nuts, vegetables, and nursery production would experience long-run relative declines of 2 to 5.4 percent in output and from 2.5 to 9.3 percent in exports.”

And, “real wages would rise, on average from 3.9 to 9.9 percent” because of an unmet, and ever-growing, farm labor shortage.

If, however, today’s temporary non-immigrant ag worker programs were expanded by just 156,000 people, the same four ag sectors would see production rise, imports increase and – because of an ample, guaranteed supply of workers – labor costs fall.

So, the GOP candidates are right in one sense; the U.S. undoubtedly has an undocumented worker problem. Their proposed fix, however, is a disaster for everyone – you, me and “they.”

The Farm and Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Past columns, events and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.

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