Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why vineyards and other farms hire illegal immigrants

Last week I covered a Napa Valley Grapegrowers conference and wrote a news story about one of the topics covered: whether or not the county's wineries should consider marketing their above-average treatment of immigrant farmworkers.

Naturally, some readers took offense. You can't write about anything remotely political in this country without people taking offense. Commenters also made assumptions about my personal beliefs on immigration that aren't true, but some people aren't good readers.

I have always been very pro-immigration. I am not, however, a supporter of illegal immigration. I have been a legal immigrant myself in other countries. My wife is a legal immigrant here. For years it has bothered me that large news organizations in this country don't pay attention to the concerns of legal immigrants while writing sob stories about illegal immigrants who "made one mistake." I have pestered newspaper immigration reporters to pay more attention to legal immigration, and been ignored. There's a huge backup right now on processing green-card applications, and legal immigrants are worried, but nobody's writing about it.

However ...

The way the messed-up immigration system in this country works right now, it's impossible for farmers to keep feeding the nation without labor from illegal immigrants.

It's simple. We don't have enough citizens who want to do farm labor, which is physically difficult, doesn't pay much and most importantly, holds few chances for advancement.

We don't have enough American-born citizens to harvest fruits and vegetables despite the crisis of opportunity for people in rural areas. That's because most citizens don't want to live on the move. To work as a harvester, you have to keep going where the fruit is ripe. American citizens haven't been willing to do that since the 1930s, the days of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. While it is possible that our new EPA director will help bring back those circumstances, it's going to take a while.

Legal immigrants will do the work. Of course they will. We could, and should, staff this nation's farms entirely with legal workers. We could, and should, replace all our nation's illegal immigrant workers with legal workers. But ...

The key word is "replace." Right now ICE is running an illegal immigrant roundup, which in a vacuum would not be a problem. What is a problem is that there is absolutely no movement toward a solution to replace the labor illegal immigrants provide.

What we need to have 100% legal farm labor in this country is a farmworker visa that's easy to apply for, easy to receive, and cheap. When you look for seasonal farm labor, you're not looking for people who are highly educated or well versed in the law, or who have the money and time to go through difficult application processes. You're looking for people desperate enough to live apart from their families and perform backbreaking work for low pay with only the slightest chance of advancement. They must be able to move quickly and generally they live paycheck-to-paycheck. Our work visa program is not designed for these workers.

It could be. But the only major U.S. politician this century to understand that was George W. Bush, who was ignored by his own party on the issue.

As a very general rule, Democrats want to welcome everyone, visa or not. I might get more flak from Democrats for this post than Republicans. Most Republicans want to keep most people out; the exceptions are highly trained workers or wealthy investors. These are good classes of immigrants to welcome. But they're not going to harvest fruit.

I would like to not be soft on illegal immigration. So many newspaper stories are about illegal immigrants who committed a robbery 20 years ago but are now a pillar of their community. I have no sympathy and wonder why they weren't deported 20 years ago. Liberal newspaper editors are not helping the public perception of immigration with these stories.

To be fair, most illegal immigrants keeping their heads down and working on farms didn't want to talk to reporters before, and are even less likely to do so now. We talk to the families of the ones who get caught. The men who helped put the salad on your table are ghosts in our machine. But we need them, because we don't have enough citizens willing to do the work.

We are a free-market country, and they are the free market at work.

There is a farm-labor shortage in this country. Government could provide a solution with something like the bracero program of the 1940s and '50s. In fact, we don't have to rely on Mexican farm labor. With an organized system of farmworker visas, we could bring in workers from any country where $12.50 an hour (the national average for farm labor) looks like a lot of money for backbreaking work. There are plenty of such countries and we could pick and choose. But our government is not even talking about such a program and shows no inclination to do so.

So the free market takes over. The economic rewards for picking vegetables in the U.S. aren't enticing enough to get former factory workers from North Carolina or Michigan to do it, but they are enough to get men from central Mexico to leave their families behind and take a risky journey north of the border.

The ones who have children and raise families here, what is their goal? For their children to have better lives and NOT be entry-level farm laborers. Maybe the second generation is content to be a tractor driver or foreman, but the dream is for the second and third generation to be business owners. The American Dream. That's why they bring their families.

And that's why we need a constant replenishment of low-level labor. We have mechanized many farm processes and will mechanize more, but we will not see an end to the need for farmworker labor in your lifetime. Unless we create another Dust Bowl and Great Depression, that means fresh immigrant labor.

By the way, a side note here: President Trump is not really behind the current round of deportations, which started under Obama. But Trump has unleashed a national anti-immigrant attitude that has emboldened Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now you read about things like Italian musicians being arrested and deported; Trump was undoubtedly not consulted. This is ICE unbound, and it's scary.

The climate of fear and distrust of all immigrants is going to give even poor central Mexican residents pause about coming here. Moreover, ICE could easily stage roundups in farm country at harvest time; I'm sure they're talking about it. If you think that would be a good thing, wait until this autumn when you shop for domestically grown fruit.

This is not really about wine. Wineries pay a little better than most farms and for the bottom of their totem pole they can get laborers who are less economically desperate: first-generation legal immigrants, second-generation legal immigrants who didn't go to college.

This is about broccoli and carrots and oranges and nectarines. If you like eating those, under our current system, you need illegal immigrants to work the fields. This is not a compassionate position,  because legal immigrants would have greater legal protections and would therefore receive greater job benefits. Turning a blind eye to illegal immigrants working on farms is not at all compassionate. But it is, in the United States in 2017, pragmatic.

If you are from a Red State and are not anti-immigrant, this would be a good time to contact your Congressional representatives and let them know.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


  1. Very thoughtful post. And although it was off-topic, I really enjoyed this line: "the days of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. While it is possible that our new EPA director will help bring back those circumstances, it's going to take a while."

  2. Agreed, very well written and of course you are going to piss some people off because they won't let logic get in the way of their ideals. Most people don't think about or even want to know where their food is from, how it got here or what a tragic waste of food we have in our system. They just want perfect looking food that is the same every time even if the quality is less. It has to look pretty! Sadly with all the "foodies" and "food culture" out there, people still don't understand the process of getting good food to your store or restaurant in a timely manner takes lots of effort and lots of people willing to work for very little so that your head of lettuce is still $1.99. The system is broken but will never be fixed unless ICE does go off the rails and starts raiding every farm, orchard or vineyard. Then all our produce will be shipped in from Chile or Mexico or ....???? But will people notice? Or care? They would have to look up from their phones to see the world around them.

  3. BTW - the bracero program was exploitive:

    This Time We Fight Back

    By Alfredo Gutierrez / 09 March 2017

  4. Yes there were abuses with the bracero program, but any grower who wanted skilled obreros back for the next season was a responsible employer. Word got out.
    With no legal supply you get an illegal supply, whether it's labor, liquor or drugs.
    So people die trying to cross the Sonoran Desert on foot after being cast adrift by a coyote. Those unwilling or unable to mule narcotics across the border for the narcotraficantes face execution and a mass grave. And there's the sexual exploitation.
    Good article.

  5. Boris Seymour said...

    Thanks the only thing left of the article is the workers had to sue the Amerikan govt. to final get SS they paid into. I do believe said suit last about 35yrs.

    Hal Beck what your saying is very true. One summer I drove a laser leveler tractor for one of biggest farmer corp. around the Tracy, Calif. Their legal labor came yr after yr because of good pay and were treated well. The last few yrs as it got even harder to cross the border legal or not labor has been had to fine. One the hardest jobs around me is moving irrigation pipe in the fields. The last few yrs the farmer near me has used the men that work in the boxing sheds for his family. The guys take turns doing it. hard work.

    Gee for whine blogger you write some interesting thingies;)

  6. Blake, just exactly how would Scott Pruitt bring about a 7 to 8-year span of extreme drought in the high plains of America?

  7. Kent: Got a book for you. Read this and get back to me:

  8. Sorry Blake, too many other more important things to do. Besides, no book is going to convince me that man can cause a 7-year drought. Despite our ability to screw things up, there are limits. I'm aware of many of the factors that magnified the impact of the drought (reduction of grassland, massive expansion of farmland, extensive tillage, etc.), but the drought would have devastated farming, regardless. The foolish land management decisions didn't cause the drought. Could foolish decisions at the EPA make the next natural disaster worse? Sure, I'll give you that. But, I seriously doubt the current attempt to role back the scope of waterways of the US under the watchful of the EPA to pre-2015 definitions will lead to dust bowls at any time in the future.

  9. Kent: You lost me at "no book is going to convince me." So why should I?

    Foolish land management decisions did cause the Dust Bowl. Be unconvinced. That doesn't change the reality.

  10. Undocumented workers are part of our farms and part of our communities. They are commonly referred to as "illegal", but the only illegal thing they ever did was move to Oregon twenty ago. Since then, two million white kids have move to Portland to eat at fancy restaurants and smoke legal weed. But guys who got a job on a farm, got married, and raised a family in a small town are considered "illegal".

    I won't try to change your mind on immigration. Even if it was possible, the internet is not the way to do it. But I will respectfully ask that you use the phrase "undocumented workers", and stop referring to my friends as "illegal aliens". It makes it sound like they're not real people with scared children.

  11. Gabriel: I use both phrases. They're both accurate. The last time I wrote an article where I used only "undocumented" (I did so because the only real references were in quotes), I got flak from the right.

    I'm not going to let them tell me what to write. I'm not going to let you do so either.