A recent analysis by The Associated Press tried to quantify what many in agriculture in the West already know: Immigrants who plant and harvest crops, tend orchards and nurseries, and work in dairies aren't taking jobs from American citizens.
The U.S. Labor Department estimates that half of all immigrant farm workers are in the country illegally and working with falsified papers. Farmers, labor contractors, the United Farm Workers of America and trade groups accept that figure.
The only way a farmer can be completely sure that an immigrant is authorized to work in the U.S. is to utilize the government's H-2A visa program, which grants temporary work visas to foreign workers hired by growers. In exchange for paying a higher wage and providing room and board, the farmers get workers who are authorized to work in the United States. Around 86,000 temporary visas were issued in the last fiscal year.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration made that program a lot less user-friendly for growers and added rules. Under the new rules, growers must provide documentation to prove they tried to find people inside the U.S. to fill the jobs. The rules require the creation of a national electronic registry designed to give U.S. workers first dibs on farm jobs. And this domestic search must continue up until the time an approved foreign worker leaves his native country en route to the job.
The high-value, labor-intensive agriculture of California is particularly dependent on immigrant labor. The AP investigated 1,160 jobs posted in California between January and June. It found only 233 citizens or legal residents applied after learning of the jobs through unemployment offices in California, Texas, Nevada and Arizona. Only 36 were hired.
It is an admittedly small sample, as only 34 growers in the state have applied for H2-A workers. Growers say it's typical of their experience.
"It's just not something that most Americans are going to pack up their bags and move here to do," farmer Steve Fortin, who pays $10.25 at his nursery near the Nevada border, told AP. "A few years ago when domestic workers were referred here, we saw absentee problems."
There are those who say that if wages and benefits were increased, more Americans would accept jobs in the field. At what price point? We suspect even wages that would push food production to foreign shores would fail to attract any but the most desperate.
The sad truth is that most Americans don't want these vital jobs. They are hard, monotonous and menial. But they are the kinds of jobs new arrivals have always taken. Their children typically fare better. This has been part of the American immigrant experience for more than 160 years.
This is not a rationalization for taking advantage. All workers should be fairly treated, and fairly paid within the limits the market determines. Nor should agriculture be dependent on illegal immigrant labor.
It's time Congress passes the AgJOBS legislation, which would reform the H2-A program and provide temporary legal status to as many as 1.35 million undocumented workers who meet rigid requirements. It's the best way for growers and processors to get the legal and reliable work force they need.