My first quarter nomination for a "Don't Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Immigration Story" award is this revealing, but also very misleading, piece about farm labor that aired on NPR's "Morning Edition" on February 26. The story focused on farmers in California's Central Valley who fear that they may lose their source of cheap labor once their workers become legal and can get jobs that actually pay them something closer to a living wage.
NPR's reporter, Dan Charles, entertained all of the usual complaints from farmers about how impossible it is for them to find — let's be honest here — slave labor. And just like many, if not most of these kinds of pity-the-poor-farmer stories, there was no mention of the fact that we already have the H2-A seasonal guest worker program, an unlimited visa category that gives farmers the ability to import foreign agricultural workers with certain restrictions.
I wanted to know why Charles felt it was acceptable to leave listeners with the impression that we have no seasonal guestworker visa for ag workers so I tweeted him. (See the Twitter exchange at the end of this posting.)
"I know farmers who use it. Big growers in California say it doesn't work for them," he replied. I pressed him a bit in a couple of follow-up tweets and he concluded that the existence of the H-2A was "one of many things I didn't feel I had time for."
But he did have time to say this in his segment: "There's a political and historical background. ... many farm leaders [want] to resurrect some form of the guestworker program that they relied on in the 1950s and the 1960s. This program brought in large numbers of farm workers for seasonal work, but did not promise citizenship. Groups representing farm employers have been lobbying Congress for a new guestworker program, so far without success."
Charles had time to reference a defunct, largely discredited guestworker program, but no time to mention the one that already exists? As a journalist, I'm familiar with the constant demand to shorten stories to accommodate our ever-decreasing attention spans, but there is always time and space to be accurate.
Charles is, sadly, in great company because this type of Stockholm syndrome immigration reporting has become ubiquitous. Reporters need people to create good stories and immigrants with hard luck tales and struggling farmers are useful sources because they're available and they make good copy. We can drive out to meet them, get the sound bites or quotes and be on our way.
It is much harder to get the other side to the story. Government officials won't talk or release documents that might cast a negative light on the immigrants featured in these pieces. And how do we find the person who might consider doing farm work if it actually paid $12 or $15 per hour with benefits instead of $8 or $9 with none? How can reporters quickly convey the fiscal burden involved with allowing millions of poorly paid people with no health insurance to live and work here?
Despite its flaws, Charles's segment is worth listening to because he found some farmers who were honest about the fact that they aren't eager for their employees to gain legal status. If those workers gain legal status, "that pressure is off. Now they can go to the cities and look for construction jobs, or manufacturing jobs," Stephen Patricio, a melon packer, told NPR.
What Patricio and thousands of other farmers just like him want is access to desperate people who are willing to work for peanuts and who can't easily quit or demand better working conditions. You can call this whatever you like, but it is modern-day slavery as far as I'm concerned.
Charles says that the farmers he has talked to say the H-2A program doesn't work. Maybe so, but this category of visas has been growing, so it must be working for someone. In FY 2013, the State Department approved 77,010 H-2A visas, compared to 67,863 in FY 2012 and 57,386 in 2011. The truth is that farmers don't like the bureaucracy and having to meet the requirements — demonstrating that their aren't sufficient workers already here, proving that the H2-A workers won't adversely affect the wages of their U.S. employees, and so on. It isn't that the H-2A system "doesn't work", it's just much more convenient to pay people under the table with no burdensome paperwork.
There's a commercial for the dating website www.farmersonly.com that features a barroom full of gorgeous women in their 20s singing, "You don't have to be lonely at farmersonly.com!" with the clear implication that if you go to their website, this is the kind of women you'll meet. If farmers are gullible enough to buy into this come-on, perhaps they're also delusional enough to think we'll continue to swallow the labor-woes manure they've been shoveling at us via the media for years.