More Guest Workers? Not What We Should Pick

By Mark Krikorian on February 25, 2001

The Washington Post, February 25, 2001

During President Bush's recent visit to Mexico, he and Mexican President Vicente Fox agreed to establish an "orderly framework for migration" between the two countries. Among the proposals that their newly formed immigration working group will review is a temporary work program for Mexicans - many of whom now come to the United States illegally. This would represent an expansion of the current H2-A guest-worker visas, which allow some 30,000 farm workers to enter the country legally each year.

Increasing the number of guest workers is not a new idea. Last year, I testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims against a bill that would have created a large agricultural guest-worker program for the first time since the so-called Bracero program, which brought close to 5 million Mexican farm workers to the United States between1942 and 1964. Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) plan to introduce dueling guest-worker proposals later this year. These have the potential to dwarf the Bracero program, since there are some 3 million Mexican illegals already here, and Gramm's proposal would not be limited to agriculture.

This is a misguided approach. My concern is not solely about the detrimental effects of encouraging more people to cross the border to work in this country - although I do believe that today's mass immigration is causing severe social and economic problems. I'm also concerned about the negative impact the policy will have on American agriculture.

There's a widely held belief that large swaths of our economy could not function without low-skilled, low-wage foreign laborers. In Gramm's words, "They are vital to our economy, yet they are violating our laws." However a careful examination of fruit and vegetable production demonstrates not only that our economy can do perfectly well without foreign labor, but that the large-scale availability of such labor actually impedes economic progress.

Similar claims about the importance of imported farm workers to maintain the superiority of American agriculture have been made in the past. In the early 1960s, during the hearings that led to the termination of the Bracero program because of exploitation of Mexican workers, a spokesman for tomato farmers claimed that "the use of braceros [imported laborers] is absolutely essential to the survival of the tomato industry." Congress went ahead and discontinued the program (which is still mired in controversy, with lawyers representing braceros preparing to file suit to recover money deducted from bracero pay). Without the cheap Mexican labor, farmers increasingly mechanized the harvest over the next three decades, resulting in a quadrupling in the production of tomatoes destined for processing _ and a fall in real prices.

This result nicely summarizes the threat guest-worker programs (or large-scale illegal immigration) pose to America's agricultural competitiveness: By artificially inflating the supply of labor, the government's interference in the labor market keeps wages low, resulting in slowed mechanization, and stagnating productivity in fruit and vegetable production.

The period from 1960 to 1975 -- roughly from the end of the Bracero program to the beginning of the mass illegal immigration we are experiencing today -- was a period of considerable mechanization, with the average labor hours per acre used in harvesting fruits and vegetables dropping by about 20 percent. But a continuing increase in the acreage and number of crops harvested mechanically did not materialize as expected after 1975, in large part because the supply of workers was artificially swollen by the growth in illegal immigration.

Farmers' mass access to foreign workers (illegal or legal) has caused the wages of farm workers to decrease over the past decade. A March 2000 report from the Labor Department found that the real wages of farm workers fell from $6.89 per hour in 1989 to $6.18 per hour in 1998. A new guest-worker program, or continued official acquiescence to illegal immigration, is likely to continue this downward trend. This may seem superficially appealing to farmers, but from a competitive point of view, vying with low-wage countries on the basis of labor costs is a dead end. No modern society will ever be willing to reduce farm workers' wages enough to match those paid in Third World countries.

You can see how changing the labor market plays out in the fields. Through the 1980s, sugar companies in Florida imported West Indian guest workers to harvest cane by hand. Then the industry was hit by a wave of lawsuits filed on behalf of workers whose contracts had been violated. This proved so nettlesome that the growers calculated it would be more profitable to mechanize the sugar harvest than to honor farm worker contracts. Today, virtually all Florida sugar cane is harvested by machine, resulting in dramatic increases in productivity, higher wages and more civilized working conditions for the remaining workers. In short, cutting off the stream of foreign labor promoted dramatic steps toward modernization.

The raisin crop provides a graphic example of the opposite phenomenon. Raisin grapes, grown in California's Central Valley, are the most labor-intensive commercial crop in North America. Traditionally, the grapes are cut with a knife, placed in a pan, then laid on a paper tray for drying. During the drying period, they must be manually turned, then rolled and collected. But a new cultivation method, called "dried-on-the-vine" (DOV) production, promises both radical reductions in labor demand and improvements in quality. This innovative method has not been widely adopted in the United States precisely because the widespread availability of foreign workers is a disincentive to raisin farmers to make the long-term capital investment needed to retrofit existing raisin farms for DOV production.

There is also the danger that the slowed innovation caused by artificial infusions of labor will allow other developed countries to leap ahead of us. This is probably most striking in the cutting-edge field of robotic harvesting. Though still in its infancy, great progress has been made in this third wave of agricultural mechanization. But because of the mass availability of alien labor in the United States, the European Union is well ahead of us in using the potentially revolutionary technology. Enactment of a new guest-worker program may help our competitors gain a permanent advantage over us in agriculture - an area where America has traditionally been the pacesetter.

It's heartening to see Bush and Fox engage on some of the major issues that confront our two countries. But, whatever final form their new framework for migration takes, the American president would do well to resist the siren song of legalized foreign labor. It may look attractive in the short term, but in the long term, it threatens to undermine the commercial viability of American agriculture. For our country's good - and for the good of agriculture itself - we need to reject calls for a new guest-worker program and to get serious about enforcing existing immigration law.