It's a Mistake to Depend on Foreign Labor: An Analyst's View

By Mark Krikorian on July 22, 2001

Idaho Statesman, July 22, 2001

Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) recently introduced bill S. 1161, which would establish a large new program to import "temporary" farmworkers, including an amnesty for illegal aliens. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is expected to unveil a guestworker plan in September, while Mexico's foreign minister has included such a plan in a list of demands he has made of the United States.

The proposals being discussed are deeply flawed and would saddle our country with enormous problems. Chief among these problems is the high cost of such cheap labor. The importation of workers with very low levels of education into a modern, high-tech economy imposes a huge burden on America's taxpayers.

A recent report from the Center for Immigration Studies shows that two-thirds of Mexican immigrant workers lack even a high school education; as a consequence, two-thirds of Mexican immigrant families live in or near poverty, 31 percent use one or more major federal welfare programs (twice the rate of native-born households), and Mexican immigration since 1987 has added 3.3 million people to the ranks of the uninsured.

What's more, long and bitter experience worldwide shows that guestworker programs and illegal-alien amnesties always increase illegal immigration, result in permanent legal settlement, and slow technological innovation in affected industries.

At the same time, past federal policies have encouraged dependence on Mexican labor, especially by our fruit and vegetable farmers. So imperative as it is to cut illegal immigration and reject guestworker programs, we owe it to farmers in Idaho and across the country to offer them an alternative to the current way of doing business.

Fortunately, such an alternative is readily available, if only we reverse an ill-advised policy from the past.

On Dec. 13, 1979, Carter administration Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland announced, "I will not put federal money into any project that results in saving of farm labor." At the same time, he backed a lawsuit by California Rural Legal Assistance against the University of California to prevent it from using any tax money to develop harvest mechanization technologies.

But the case of fruit and vegetable farming calls for a transitional federal partnership with private industry - the government fostered farmers' dependence on alien labor, through past guest worker programs, amnesties, and lack of immigration enforcement, so it is Washington's responsibility to help farmers extricate themselves from the fallout of federal folly.

The solution then is to include in the next Department of Agriculture appropriations bill funding geared toward a revived effort at mechanization of fruit and vegetable harvesting. Such a program would have several components:

  • Research and development of labor-saving machines and robotic harvesting - European producers are far ahead of us in developing cutting-edge robotic technologies for agriculture, precisely because they don't have the same mass access to cheap labor. There are huge gains to be made in citrus, lettuce, apples, and other crops.
  • Research and development of "labor-aids" - technologies which don't reduce the need for workers but which make the work easier to perform. This would address widespread concerns about occupational injuries among farmworkers and allay the fears of those who contend that mechanization would be bad for farmworkers. But it also would help farmers, by effectively increasing the number of potential workers, since more people would be capable of performing the work.
  • Finally, it would be necessary to offer loan guarantees to enable smaller family farmers to be able to purchase the new equipment or reorganize their operations to increase harvest productivity. Otherwise, large, better-capitalized operations would be able to take advantage of these new technologies developed with taxpayer funds to squeeze their smaller competitors.

The dependence of our horticultural sector on foreign labor is a genuine problem - but Sen. Craig's solution would only spawn new difficulties.

Helping agriculture disentangle itself from foreign labor would strengthen the competitive position of America's farmers, avoid burdening taxpayers with huge new liabilities, and lighten the load of those who continue to toil in the fields.