Monday, May 3, 2010

Wine and immigration

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?


Tricerapops said...

good read. i spend an average of $15 on a bottle, and i understand that part of the reason why prices can remain the way they are, is through labor costs. even without this context of grape picking (which is a great lens to look through), i oppose the Arizona law.

Jon Bjork said...

We're right in the middle of this issue here in Lodi, though it is such an ingrained part of our society that we don't often talk about immigration.

I've known many immigrants from Mexico that would prefer to come and go over the border, but are fearful of being stopped upon reentry into the U.S., even the legal immigrants. Many have family back home that they live with during the off-season, bringing their U.S. wages to help them live a slightly better life in Mexico.

That said, I do agree with you that they should all be legal. It can be a real hardship when a cellar or vineyard foreman is sent back across the border when it turns out they are using some else's SSN and forged paperwork.

Arthur said...

Before you can pick any grape, you have to plant, set up irrigation, train, prune etc for a few years.
Even doing that on flat land is grueling enough - never mind sloped sites.

Labor costs and what the company providing the workers charges a grower are two extremely disparate things. The margins, I have been told, are quite big. Everyone has to make money, but some end up making less and they do so because something about their personal situation is exploited.

Things happen and circumstances persist because someone has something to gain from the status quo.

Arthur said...

As a legal immigrant, myself,I agree with your view and assessment.

I wonder though: how do you think the United Farm Workers (who presumably are all legal or documented - I am not versed well enough in this matter to know for certain) would respond to your proposal for documented migrant workers.

To your parting question: I usually pay anywhere in the $20 to $40 range for California wines. European wines: less than $20.

Brittanicus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
W. Blake Gray said...

Yes, but how much do you pay for wine?

Jon Bjork said...

Sorry. I'll admit to buying cases lately from Big Lots and Grocery Outlet of wine at $2-$4/bottle that were going for $10-$20. I'm usually just fine with $10 and up, though I'm VERY happy to find wines under $10 that show some excitement. I'll also admit to going through our topping wine at a pretty good clip.

I would guess that about 75% of the wine I drink was touched while on the vine by an immigrant worker.

One tidbit: knowing that labor costs will likely keep heading up, locals are increasing efforts at mechanization in the form of better harvesters and even robotic pruning.

Anonymous said...

AMNESTY is NOT the answer. What we need is an easy system for people to get temporary work permits so they can come here to work legally and return home. I’ve talked and work with some of this people who come here to work and their intention is not to stay her. However, once they do get here they are forced to remain here because it is so hard for them to travel back and forth. If we had a system that made it easy for them to come here, work, and go home, that’s exactly what that vast majority of them would do.


Steve Heimoff said...

Blake, I would not have approved the political rant of Brittanicus on my blog.

Todd Trzaskos said...

Thanks for a sane and cogent approach to the topic, and for the gentle reminder that the vast majority of us are transplants.
I grew up with my immigrant great grand parents, who started with nothing but their hands and the clothes on their backs, grandparents that made it to blue collar, parents that went to college and became professionals, and even though education right through grad school was pretty much mandatory for me, the first job I had was picking vegetables for an organic farm. It was an important life-educational experience, that frankly, all young people should be exposed to.
I have my own profession now, but each autumn for the last few years, I have been picking grapes in trade for the fruit to make my own wine, and as a reminder.
This kind of work needs to get done, or we are faced with only increased mechinization and industry scale agriculture, if human options are not available.
We obviously need the help, and there are folks that are obviously interested. The idea of asking people in, to do what we consider to be "dirty work", and then send them packing when they are finished, is far more odious to me than the work itself ever could be. Even here in VT, the ailing dairy industry relies heavily on Mexican labor, and it may be the only thing keeping some family farms afloat.

PS. Any of the under $10 bottles that we drink are from foreign lands, so we are probably supporting someone elses immigration problem...and here I just assume that 'cheap' wine feeds the Bronco machine, and other ailments. I'd like to buy more wine from here knowing full well that it s feeding a healthy system, not a dysfunctional one.

W. Blake Gray said...

Steve: You're right. It's gone.

Steve Lock said...

A well stated argument re: immigration. I own a vineyard and winery and the laborers I talk to have little interest in citizenship; they want to come here to work for a fair wage and then go home, something that is currently impossible. Formation of a sensible guest worker program and absolute control of our boarders would go a long way in solving our current immigration problems.

Bill Cooper said...

We also own vineyards and winery, and I second Steve Lock's comment re worker motivation and guest worker policy (lack of; also see: need for). a guest worker program would relieve pressure for illegal crossings for employment, thus highlighting those still crossing illegally as drug traffickers, et al.

Anonymous said...

I am a winemaker and during my overseas apprenticeship picked, pruned, suckered, hoed, sprayed and did all other work for three years. It was a rewarding job without the stress of working in an office environment (although the pay was stressful). Today most of my hispanic co-workers want to go home, want to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but instead they send their money home, worry about Sancho, and find themselves growing old without knowing their children. If they have fake id's they pay taxes but never see a drop of the money. We need a guest worker program. Let them pay into the system, but let the system pay out when they leave or retire. Allow them to come to work, but allow them to go home to their beloved motherlands when the work is finished. They are are finest assets. Let's start treating them like equals.

Anonymous said...

This is a nice article. I would like to chime in and say that we believe that we hire only legal immigrants. It always surprises us when we receive notice that an employee is using someone elses SS#. It has a negative impact in our operations and trust any business would prefer to not have this occur. The price of the grapes plays a roll in our hourly pay as much as it does in our salary pay rates. Business must survive to keep people employed. We pay above minimum wage for field labor and have classifications for experienced skilled operators. In the past two years we have had some experience with your average non-hispanic American attempting to work in the vineyard. It is never what they expect. The work is tedious and hours are long. Prior to that, we never had any non-hispanic applicants. Immigrant labor is a necessity, just try to imagine going to the grocery store and there are no fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, cheese, we have no labor to process the goods. What difference does the price of wine matter when there are no staples to pair with it. Having said that, I buy wine that I have an emotional experience with. I have tried at a tasting, I'm cooking a meal that pairs with a specific wine. Thats what I buy. If I'm at a tasting, it can run between $18/bot - $40/bot. If I'm at the store I only buy under $10 and usually it is on sale, not noting the retail price.

Chase said...

I live in Arizona and this is probably the first rational analysis of the situation. While I pay $20 & up for my wine, I work in the industry and know the back-breaking labor that goes into every bottle; it is almost always done by immigrant workers (both legal and illegal). To support local agriculture, law enforcement has always turned a blind eye during harvest season (who knows if that'll change). There is so much hate and hostility being spewed over this topic and blame pinned on racism, while the heart of the issue has and always will lie in our federal immigration policies.

Lidocoop said...

Interesting, I have not heard any conservative advocate sending illegal aliens to a prison in the desert. I would really like to have a link to that quote from Rush Limbaugh. I don't believe the Arizona law does either. I do know that the sheriff in Mariposa County, AZ, rounds up 10's of thousands of illegals each year and they are returned to Mexico.

I am in favor of preventing illegals from crossing the border and returning them if they are stopped for reasonable cause.

Isn't it ironic that we pay Americans unemployment not to work and allow illegal aliens to work illegally. Aren't we a generous country!

Anonymous said...

This doesn't have to be a lot of trouble, only this time make sure they don't have to sue to get the SS due them.


Wilma Flintstone said...

If someone has a green card, they have a tax payer identification number and they are paying income taxes on wages lower than minimum wage and usually in abhorrent working conditions. Unlike the undocumented "illegal" workers that say get hired by some racist Republican contractor that exploits them for $12 an hour (max) that pays them under the table. Those immigrants are not paying taxes and neither is their employer. It is odd to me that the very Americans that do this hate illegal immigrants, and vote for ethnic cleansing while they are laughing all the way to the bank. = Evil. Illegal immigrants who do not possess a tax payer identification number do not qualify for any social services other than emergency medical care. All the uneducated people who do not know this or choose to ignore the truth, voted for a racist who adheres to Nazi ideology.