Picking grapes is hard work. There’s some skill involved, as I learned when I tried it myself. But mainly, it’s back-breaking labor and it pays poorly.
You won’t find many Americans picking wine grapes, or harvesting any other kind of fruit or vegetable. The California wine industry needs hundreds of itinerant workers, mostly Mexican, to get the grapes off the vine and into the wineries.
This is not unique to the US. In Spain, many harvest workers are from Poland. In Israel, grape pickers come from Thailand. Nobody wants to pick grapes for a living unless they’re economically desperate.
The immigration debate mostly ignores the realities of harvest work that have changed little since John Steinbeck wrote “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1939. Then, California grape growers took advantage of displaced Dust Bowl refugees to get other Americans cheap grapes. Americans were horrified by the conditions depicted in the book and film, but didn't volunteer to pay more for grapes. It took the United Farm Workers union several strikes to get labor-protection laws that made the job more humane.
Not coincidentally, grape growers starting hiring more illegal immigrants not long after, and grape prices stayed low.
There aren’t as many illegal pickers in Napa and Sonoma Counties as you might think. Grapes fetch a premium there and wages are good enough to attract permanent residents -- though not good enough in most cases for them to live outside of dormitories.
But as a nation, we would not produce many under-$10 bottles of wine without illegal immigrant pickers.
You probably expect me to launch into another attack on the new Arizona immigration law. But I’m not going to. I understand why Arizonans wanted this law, which basically just allows local cops to ask people for their papers.
The East Coast media’s hysterical overreaction to the law annoys me more than the law itself, because it’s typical of the polarized immigration debate in this country.
We have just two widely held positions on immigration: The left says, “These undocumented people are already here. Let’s give them a hug and a green card and access to the same services as citizens.” And the right says, “These criminals are undermining us. Let’s kick them all out, and maybe imprison them first as punishment.”*
* (The cost of imprisonment will apparently be paid from the same red-letter-day, it-doesn’t-really-count budget as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Good thing that money is unlimited!)
Now the Arizona law is being discussed from the same entrenched positions. The East Coast media -- you don’t see a lot of truckloads of border-jumpers in Boston -- is beating a drum for a boycott of Arizona Diamondbacks games, while the Rush Limbaugh types want everyone with a Spanish accent tossed in a prison camp in the desert, where they’ll be forced to wear pink underpants.
What we need -- and haven’t had -- is a rational, apolitical discussion of immigration. And grape picking is as good a place to start as any.
I am a huge advocate of legal immigration. This is a nation of immigrants, and unless your last name is Running Horse, your ancestors were immigrants too. Immigrants are the reason for our vitality; they come in hungry and eager to prove themselves, and have for generations. Whether it’s computer science or fusion cuisine, it’s hard to name an area of our national economy that has not been enriched by first-generation immigrants.
We need more immigrants, millions more. But they should be legal. They should be subject to our laws and welcome to our privileges. They should apply and be chosen. They should have traceable IDs, not stolen identities.
They should be willing to wait their turn for legal entry -- which they’re not currently doing because of our ridiculous immigration policies.
The reason Central Americans are paying Mexicans thousands of dollars to transport them across a hostile border is because of our need. If we didn’t need them, we wouldn’t hire them, and they wouldn’t come. But we do need them, so they stream over the border like air rushing into a vacuum.
Back to grape picking for a moment. Why would somebody from Michoacan risk crossing the border if there was no work picking grapes in Fresno? If Americans would do the work, he would not come, because he would lose money on the trip. But we won’t, and he will.
However, because of our irrational immigration system, he can’t get car insurance, so if he hits somebody, they’re screwed. He can’t get health insurance, so if he gets cut with a machete, he has to use the emergency room and we pay for it. People on the right complain about the symptoms. People on the left want to pay the bills and give him a hug and a green card. Nobody addresses the cause.
We need more immigrants! We need to acknowledge that, and set up a rational system that will stop rewarding lawbreakers. If a law-abiding man from Michoacan were to apply at the US Embassy in Mexico City for a visa to pick grapes, they would laugh in his face. So what’s he to do: break the law, or stay home? That’s the choice we give the workers we need.
Much of my disgust with the liberal media on this issue comes from having been a legal immigrant myself, and being married to a legal immigrant today. Do you know how much more difficult it is to become a legal immigrant since 9/11? You don’t, do you? I don’t blame you: the media isn’t interested in the issue. And that is a huge part of the problem.
When newspapers write stories about immigration, they are inevitably sob stories about some lawbreaker: somebody who has been in the country illegally for 15 years and is about to be deported because of a misdemeanor. We’re supposed to weep for this person. I’ve been to more than 40 countries, have lived in three, and have never overstayed a visa, so I have little sympathy for the usually pathetic excuses. No wonder conservative talk show hosts mock these stories.
But that guy in South Korea with an engineering degree who’s been on a waiting list for five years for a visa, and hasn’t come because he’s the type who obeys laws? There’s never a story about him. Liberals don’t care because he’s not an illegal immigrant. Conservatives don’t care because they don’t want more immigrants anyway. So he waits and waits while less law-abiding people jump the line.
Back to grape pickers: We need a category of visas for guest workers; fruit pickers are a perfect example. They should permit multiple entries and be renewable. If someone keeps coming -- and going back on time -- for 5 years without any criminal activity, they should be able to get a higher level of green card.
Most guest worker proposals I’ve seen have a time limit, after which they’re not allowed to return. That’s silly. Guest workers should be treated like probationary workers in a company. If they’re good at picking fruit, they are hard workers by definition, and they will be good for this nation.
If conservatives don’t like it, I suggest they get out to California and pick grapes, even for one day. Just because anybody can do a job doesn’t mean anybody will do it.
For my parting shot, I want everybody who has a position on this issue to tell me the average amount you spend for a bottle of wine. If it’s over $20, then it can be harvested by permanent fulltime workers. Hopefully everybody who thinks the Arizona immigration law is a good idea is spending this much money on wine.
If your average wine costs $10 or less, you are encouraging the illegal immigrant labor flow. You need to be against the Arizona law. Are you?