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Technology trumps illegal labor: the AgJOBS amnesty bills would encourage illegal immigration at a time when new, cost-efficient technology is rendering the need for more field hands obsolete.

With the Democratic Party now at the helm of Congress, amnesty legislation for illegal aliens is back with a vengeance. AgJOBS bills--which would provide paths to full U.S. citizenship for illegal aliens working in agriculture--have been reintroduced in both the Senate (S. 237) and the House (H.R. 371). Sponsored by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.) respectively, these bills are purportedly meant to help U.S. agriculture compete in a global economy, but because the agricultural industries in other countries pay their laborers so much less compared to the United States, the bills are unlikely to do any such thing.

AgJOBS legislation would identify "vacant" agricultural jobs that would then be filled by immigrant workers--as many as 1.5 million of them over a five-year period. These alien workers would be set on the path to citizenship. Of course, the workers' families ride the workers' coattails to citizenship, meaning that it is almost assured that in excess of three million illegal immigrants would be rewarded with citizenship.

Under this legislation, illegal aliens would be able to obtain a "blue card" that would grant them "temporary" legal status (for family members as well as for themselves) if they could show they had worked in the United States for at least 862 hours or 150 work days (5.75 hours being a legal working day) during the past two years. The immigrants would then be required to work a set number of hours in agriculture to secure permanent citizenship. When the workers are not working in agriculture, they would be free to take any other job they can get.

This type of measure remains as bad of an idea now as it was the last go-around, and it needs to be opposed again. Fraud is rampant in such programs, and the AgJOBS bills would not "solve" agriculture's problem and allow us to compete with foreign nations that also use cheap labor.

Undoubtedly fraud would exist on a wide scale if AgJOBS were passed. According to NumbersUSA, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration already has a backlog of millions of applicants, and a new amnesty would allow "false documents and misrepresentations to go undetected." NumbersUSA notes that "as many as two-thirds of the illegal immigrants who applied for amnesty as 'Special Agricultural Workers' in 1986 filed fraudulent applications. Many had never worked a day in agriculture."

Cost Competitive

A main argument for passing the AgJOBS bill is that over a million illegal immigrants are estimated to work in agriculture and that their absence would cause crop prices to go up significantly and cause the United States to be uncompetitive with other countries. But for the most part, neither is likely true. In fact, their absence would not only likely result in a relatively small price increase at the supermarket (see page 27), but could actually lead to price decreases as U.S. producers develop and implement the use of technology to replace the cheap labor.

In fact, technology is already beginning to displace immigrant labor in agriculture, bringing costs down and causing an overabundance of workers in many agricultural areas. Farmers are embracing new technology in an effort to survive the economic wrecking ball that is globalization.

Take the raisin industry, for example, centered in California where there is a wellknown concentration of illegal-immigrant labor. A recent Copley News Service article reports that due to the introduction of mechanization in the industry, raisin farmers now need fewer workers. Where 50 were once needed, the number has dropped to no more than five. The article continues, "[California] state officials believe two or three migrants are currently competing for each of California's 400,000 to 500,000 seasonal farm jobs. If machines pick the raisins, agricultural experts say, labor demand will drop to a tenth of the 40,000 to 50,000 workers typically hired today." This, of course, means a glut of unneeded migrant workers--if our federal legislators allow them to remain in this country, with President Bush providing them a fast track to eventual citizenship. Unable to find jobs that pay a living wage --minus welfare contributions--these amnestied workers will contribute to our country's "race to the bottom."

Florida orange growers are also finding themselves having to adopt mechanization to stay in business in the face of both increased competition from Brazil, where growers have abundant cheap labor and less costly regulations to comply with than in the United States, and a glut of oranges on the world market. Again, this means less of a need for laborers, legal or illegal. The New York Times reported in March, 2004 that Florida orange growers were beginning to adopt canopy shakers, machines capable of dislodging some 36,000 pounds of oranges from 100 orange trees in just 15 minutes. "This would have taken four pickers all day long," observed Paul Meador, owner of one of these groves. The Barron Collier Company, which harvests 40.5 million pounds of oranges annually from 10,000 acres of groves in southwestern Florida, has also turned to shakers. "The Florida industry has to reduce costs to stay in business," Everett Loukonen, Barron Collier's agribusiness manager told the Times. "Mechanical harvesting is the only available way to do that today."

Galen Brown, formerly of the Florida Department of Citrus before he retired in 2003, stated, "The rest of the world handpicks everything, but their wage rates are a fraction of ours." In other words, because of globalization, cheap labor isn't cheap enough in America! Even illegal immigrants are too expensive! This surely undermines the desirability of the (very slightly) refurbished AgJOBS bills now again before Congress.

Toward Technology

If farmers in the United States hope to compete in a global market, they must shun illegal immigrant labor and look toward technological advantages. The latest of U.S. crops to be largely taken over by foreign imports that are reliant on using workers paid only slightly more than slave labor is garlic. Right now Chinese garlic costs almost half of what garlic grown domestically costs, according to Alexei Barrionuevo writing in the New York Times. Garlic grower Mike Mantelli told him, "The Chinese garlic totally caught us off-guard and knocked us down.... I think our industry has hit rock bottom. Maybe now we can figure out how to make it a level playing field." American garlic growers, based mostly in California, have started pushing for subsidies to keep from being driven under--even though they're using illegal immigrant labor. Clearly subsidies won't solve the problem in the long run.

It is true that some crops are considered too delicate to be harvested using present technology, such as most berries, but farm groups would be better off developing new technologies to pick these crops, rather than agitating for more immigrant labor, because it is likely the only way they will be able to compete in the face of globalization.

One crop that will soon likely be harvested using new technology is the cranberry crop. Wisconsin-based cranberry farmer Dan Brockman's new invention romantically called the "ruby slipper" holds out some promise of a method for harvesting cranberries that will save cranberry farmers money. To use the "ruby slipper," one attaches the machine either to the front or the rear of a tractor, then drives the tractor through the fields flooded with six inches of water. Steel finger-like rods nudge the plants and prod cranberries loose. They then float to the surface in the tractor's wake and are easily scooped up. "If it works as well as it appears it does.... it will revolutionize cranberry harvesting," Teryl Roper, a fruits crop specialist and professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Associated Press in 2005.

The device costs from $7,000 to $9,000 (depending on its width), as opposed to the $40,000 that the more traditional water wheel beater costs. The latter, moreover, requires three workers to operate, while the "ruby slipper" requires just one.

Of course, there are some jobs now performed by illegal immigrants that Americans would not want to do for the same pay and that could not be replaced with technology. In those cases, employers will have to pay enough to attract the laborers they need--or devise other incentives to work, such as on-site daycare--resulting in a relatively small increase in the price at the grocery store. But these price increases would be more than offset by decreases in social welfare spending.

The AgJOBS amnesty bills would encourage more immigration at a time when more cost-efficient technology is rendering the need for more field hands obsolete. By passing an AgJOBS bill, our politicians would be providing disincentives to developing new technologies and further harming the agriculture industry in the long term. If a tack is taken toward developing new technologies, the United States may one day again be a net exporter of food.

Steven Yates, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at the University of South Carolina Upstate and Greenville Technical College.
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Title Annotation:IMMIGRATION
Author:Yates, Steven
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Feb 19, 2007
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