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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bringing in the Harvest: the Unintended Consequences of Immigration Policy

For an example of how poorly crafted and uncoordinated immigration policies hurt everyone, look no further than my own region of origin, Washington:  a northern state that borders the Canadian province of British Columbia.  

Washington State is best known internationally as the home of  high-tech enterprises like Microsoft, Adobe and Amazon.   To the surprise of many it is also an agricultural region and one of the main crops is apples:  Fujis, Red Delicious, Pink Ladies.  When I was a child we would go over the mountains to visit my great-grandparents and we would always pick up huge boxes of apples and peaches and other fruit for eating or canning.

This year the apple farmers are reporting a good year, a bumper crop.  Unfortunately, there has been a real struggle to find enough labor to pick the fruit from the trees and the farmers are desperately searching for solutions including, in some cases, using inmates from local prisons.

How did this happen?  Nature played a role (the harvest was late) but immigration politics and the economics of farming are even more important factors.  I could find no better example that proves the Migration Policy Institute's point that there is a disconnect between U.S. policy at the State and Federal level and the real-time labor needs of actors in the American economy.  Tougher immigration laws (sometimes enacted in one state to the detriment of others), more vigorous enforcement of the laws already on the books, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and a weak American economy next to a relatively strong Mexican economy, are radically reducing the numbers of migrants, legal and illegal.  Washington is not the only state to be suffering -   Alabama is another region where farmers are very bitter about new state immigration laws that are making it very difficult to find workers.

It is an open secret that agriculture in the U.S. relies heavily on immigrant (usually illegal) labor.  These are back-breaking jobs that require a lot of physical endurance under very poor working conditions.  And, clearly, they are not well-paid.  On the other hand, farming is not the world's most lucrative profession, especially small farms that lack the economies of scale that allow the big farms to survive in the national and global markets. In the past there was a kind of "live and let live" policy between farmers and government and between the United States and Mexico.  In a growing economy, this arrangement was beneficial to everyone.  With the souring of the U.S. economy, all this changed and the migrants began leaving.  Hundred of thousands of people fleeing California and other states for home (Mexico) where the economy is not too bad (unemployment at 5.4% in 2010) and where, more importantly, they don't have to live in fear of being harassed and deported.

Sometimes it is possible for everyone to have a good point and still have a bad outcome.  It is very easy to impute bad motives (racism, greed, lack of realism, political gain) to politicians, farmers, American labor and so on.  Oh, if it were that simple.

The farmers are right.  They need workers for jobs that are not terribly attractive.  They could pay higher wages but that would make them less competitive.  They operate in a global market and there are countries with much lower wages than the U.S.  If the labor shortage continues, small farms will be driven out of business.  Nobody wants that.

Labor is right.  It's not good for the American worker, people who have fought hard for decent wages, benefits and better working conditions, to be undercut by agricultural and service industries who hire migrants to evade labor law.  Unemployment is high in the U.S. right now and people want to work but they have every interest in refusing jobs that don't pay a living wage or without basic benefits.  Americans receive very little compared to Europeans from the government - healthcare,  for example, has traditionally been provided by employers.  Nobody wants to see American workers without access to healthcare or a living wage that allows people to feed their families.

The migrants are right.  They want to work too but they don't want to be harassed, treated like criminals, or held responsible for all the ills of America.  All these laws, the new and the old ones now being enforced, combined with harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, create a hostile environment that repels immigrants, illegal and legal.  Who wants to put in a 10-hour shift picking apples for a low wage only to be stopped repeatedly by local law enforcement on the way home and asked to show papers?  Nobody wants people to live in fear or have the sense that they are living in an authoritarian police state.

I left the politicians and government officials for last because it's their job to look at the interests of all the actors above and the will of the people to try and find some solution that satisfies everyone.  Complicating this task is the fact that the U.S. is very much like the EU in the sense that are many different levels of government (city, country, state and Federal) and they all respond to different constituents who have interests that are not always compatible.

Otto von Bismarck once said, "Laws are like sausages, it's better not to see them being made."  U.S. immigration law and policy are an perfect example of this both in their production and implementation. Too many interests, not enough coordination and leadership, and a failure to understand the national and international context in which business and migrants try to maximize their positions, make for a really bad bratwurst.

I don't see an easy solution to any of this.  Better minds than mine have grappled with this issue to no avail.  What everyone needs to remember in this debate is that words, ideas and laws have consequences, often unintended, but very very real, and sometimes, downright destructive.

Bonus:  This video by an American comedian on the state of Alabama's new immigration laws is both funny and true.  Enjoy.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Alabama's Migrant Workers
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

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