Guest Blog by Andrew Wainer
According to this line of thinking, if we turned up the heat by reducing public benefits, some of the 13.5 million unemployed citizens would be compelled to turn off the TV, get off the couch, and apply for jobs working as field hands, cleaning staff, and construction workers.
This theory has a clean, mathematical appeal: Subtract an unauthorized worker and add an unemployed citizen equals fewer immigrants and higher citizen employment. Simple.
But the labor market isn’t so simple. Unless we want to transition to a command economy where the government compels workers into certain jobs, we can’t force citizen workers to labor in agriculture, which is dominated by immigrants and has been for decades.
As I noted in a previous post, there have been numerous attempts to entice citizens to field work at wages above state and federal minimums. All have been unsuccessful. Even with the worst recession in decades and the Department of Labor trying to increase awareness of agricultural job vacancies among citizens, there have been very few takers.
Almost all serious observers and analysts agree that at least some of the work immigrants do in the United States—particularly agricultural—is never again going to be done by citizen workers. Barring an event of apocalyptic scale, U.S. citizens are not going to return to work in the fields in large numbers.
This trend is true around the world in developed and developing countries. If Americans are lazy, they’re in good company. Immigrants from relatively poorer countries perform agricultural work in economies as diverse as Canada, Japan, and El Salvador.
In Central America, El Salvador—which is a major source of migrants to the United States—employs 200,000 unauthorized immigrant workers from poorer neighboring countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras to work in agriculture because Salvadorans—who tend to be a bit wealthier than their neighbors—have started to abandon field labor.
Closer to home, Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) brings about 20,000 workers from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean each year to work in seasonal fruit and vegetable crops, some of which are exported to the United States. SAWP is run by the Canadian and Mexican governments and is seen by both as a model guest worker program.
Our abandonment of agricultural work is consistent with what happens around the world when societies become more educated and prosperous. Educated parents want their children to go to college, not work in the fields.
Since ramping up recruitment has failed to entice citizens to do agricultural work, other efforts have emphasized increasing wages. While moderate wage increases will help stabilize the current farm labor work force and lift many workers out of poverty, raising them to draw in citizen workers isn’t a realistic solution according to leading agricultural economists. That’s because —in part—it isn’t all about wages. While Mexico is an industrializing country, about a quarter of its population is still rural — millions of these rural Mexicans end up working in rural America.
In the United States about 2 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. We’ve essentially lost our taste for agricultural work at any realistic wage.“The flexibility of low-wage labor markets … is always on the demand side, not the supply side,” University of California-Davis Professor Philip Martin said during a recent phone interview. “It’s much easier to reduce demand than to increase supply. If wages go up, we are going to hire fewer people,” Martin continues. “We’re not going to get more Americans out there.”
The same holds for an immigration crackdown that removes immigrant workers with the goal of creating space for citizens. Martin says a lack of immigrant workers due to an enforcement crackdown will prompt farmers to adopt one or several options:
1) Increase mechanization
2) Switch crops
3) Sell their land
4) Increase the cost of their products
“Hire more citizen workers” is not on the list and isn’t an economically realistic outcome of deporting immigrant workers.
Over the long term, the need for immigrants could gradually decrease as growers shift to labor-saving aides and mechanization. But immigrants will be central to the farm labor force at least for the next 20 years. Even beyond that, agriculture will continue to require some form of human labor.
Economics dictates that immigrants will be the farm labor force for the foreseeable future. Rather than harboring fantasies about middle-class Americans returning to the fields, we would be well-served by crafting a realistic agricultural labor policy that benefits workers, growers, and migrant-sending communities in Latin America.
Andrew Wainer is an Immigration Policy Analyst for Bread for the World Institute in Washington, DC. Andrew has worked as a reporter and researcher in Latin America and in Latin American immigrant communities in the United States. His work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and in the peer-reviewed journal International Migration among other publications. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
If you’re interested in writing a guest blog, contact [email protected].