From TBO.com, Tampa Bay Online, “Illegal immigration: More at stake than you think” 22 Jan 2012.
Ask most Americans about “illegal immigration” and they are likely to conjure an image of someone of Hispanic origin swimming across the Rio Grande or evading border patrolmen in the desert. The reality is that just who is “illegal,” how they got here and their impact on our society is much more complex than the visual impression we get from television news.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates that between 27 and 57 percent of the country’s 12 million to 14 million “illegals” are visa overstays — people who arrived legally with temporary, non-immigrant status and didn’t leave the country when their visas expired. Government policies perpetuate the problem because those who overstay their visa, once they leave, can’t ever come back legally due to their overstay violation.
The bumper sticker solution
I’m generally a law-and-order type, and I used to believe that if the first thing you do when you come to this country is break the law by entering it illegally, you ought to be rounded up and sent home.
But I’ve evolved. Illegal immigration is far too complicated an issue, with wide-ranging social, economic and emotional considerations; we shouldn’t expect a solution to be found on a bumper sticker.
So far, the federal government has yet to get the solution right. This is due in part to splintered factions of labor unions, business and agricultural groups, and “human rights” activists with divergent interests. As a result of federal inaction, several states have attempted to solve the illegal immigration problem within their borders with quick-fixes that are long on rhetoric, short on solutions and with devastating economic impacts — particularly on the farm economy, which relies heavily on immigrant labor.
The Georgia model
Last year Georgia enacted a tough law to rid the state of illegal immigrants, including a provision for employers to use the federal E-Verify program to check workers’ citizenship. It worked; and the result was Georgia farmers lost an estimated $150 million due to crops that sat in the field unpicked because the labor pool fled the state, according to the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal suggested farmers hire some of the state’s residents who are on probation or parole for criminal offenses. The criminals said, “Too hard” — the crops rotted.
Unlike the harvesting of commodity crops such as corn and wheat that are highly mechanized, specialty crops such as strawberries and most fruits and vegetables are highly dependent on manual labor for planting, weeding and harvesting. If these crops don’t have laborers to tend to them, the crops die. They weren’t growing wheat in Georgia; they were growing onions, blueberries and other crops that require pickers. Crops like strawberries.
Why “average” Americans don’t work in the fields
Gary Wishnatzki is a third-generation family farmer with an easy smile and an unassuming manner. His family’s “Wish” Farms of Plant City is a 21st century operation that matches manual labor with the best new technology to ensure the produce you buy from his farms is fresh and tasty. Wishnatzki’s farms stretch over several Florida counties, and the company is the largest strawberry producer in the state.
To get its crops picked the farm relies almost entirely on Hispanic laborers, many of whom are immigrants. Wishnatzki says his farm never knowingly hires illegals. But the process of filing paperwork and getting confirmation from the government that the worker is documented is slow. He says that by the time his farm learns of an undocumented worker from the government, the season is usually over, and that worker has moved on.
Wish Farms’ repeated efforts to hire domestic American workers to work the fields have all been failures. So I asked him: Why do you think average Americans don’t work out?
“The average citizen who shows up on our farms to work in the fields lasts not a few days, but just a few hours. The average American doesn’t want these jobs,” Wishnatzki says.
Ted Campbell of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association said, “American social systems tend to provide substantial compensation — with continuously lengthening duration — to our domestic unemployed, which can sometimes diminish or delay motivation to seek a low-end job.”
If you read between the lines, Campbell is saying a lot of people want a job, but they don’t want to work. If it requires work, let’s just ask Congress for an extension of unemployment benefits. Something for nothing — it’s the new American way.
With a domestic labor force that doesn’t want to work in the fields, a large, mostly Hispanic immigrant community is ready, willing and able to get the job done. Yet calls persist for massive deportations, implementation of E-Verify and denial of public services to illegal immigrants. This has resulted in a serious labor shortage at farms across the country.
“[We are] still short labor in our fields. Our farms are barely keeping up with harvesting and maintenance right now. We are very worried about March, when the crop normally peaks,” Wishnatzki says.
When you stop and think about it, deportation has to be about the dumbest idea conceived since the Transportation Security Administration; but that hasn’t stopped some anti-immigrant groups for calling for it.
Never mind that it took the United States military nine months to find Saddam Hussein. One guy, thousands of troops, nine months times 12 million; it ain’t gonna’ happen.
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee says, “You can’t deport 12 million people — it’s logistically impossible, even after everyone gets their due process.”
The stereotyped image of illegal immigrants suggests they’re criminals who are a drain on services and don’t pay taxes. Some of that may be true, but they’re hardly the reason for the stock market bust, the mortgage crisis or our country being $15 trillion in debt. But it’s easier to create a villain than to look in the mirror and realize what the real problem is.
When I spoke to the sheriff he dispelled the notion of illegal Hispanic immigrants as criminals who clog up the system. Sure, there are bad apples among them, but they’re no different than any group.
According to Gee, if you want to target a group that’s a threat to America it would be enclave groups of Russians and Eastern Europeans forming sophisticated gangs in Florida and elsewhere. “It’s not the Mexicans you need to be concerned with,” the sheriff says.
As for the claim that they don’t pay any taxes, the fact is that most immigrants working on the farms pay into the payroll tax system — but with few receiving any return benefit. They also pay sales taxes, purchase goods and services, pay rent and contribute to the U.S. economy in other ways.
Words from the Gipper
Ronald Reagan once said, “Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion, or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won’t do? One thing is certain in this hungry world, no regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters.”
While Reagan’s view wouldn’t be supported by the fringes on the right who demand E-Verify and want to round up 12 million people and send them back where they came from, perhaps the national security argument will. That is, mandatory E-Verify without a workable agricultural worker program will mean exporting U.S. farm production and U.S. jobs, and importing much more of our food. That’s a huge national security concern.
Or as the Agricultural Program for Immigration Reform puts it: Our children may grow up under the thumb of a new OPEC; this time, the Organization of Produce Exporting Countries.
Mandatory E-Verify would just complicate the farm economy even more by drying up the labor pool, raising consumer prices and driving more U.S. jobs overseas.
“If we paid $20 per hour you could get non-immigrants out there in the fields, but you wouldn’t get the crop picked,” Wishnatzki says. Domestic workers just don’t like the work and don’t do a good job doing it. The result would be crop losses and higher prices.
If the laborers aren’t around and farmers can’t get the crops picked, they’ll just quit planting, and those agricultural industry jobs will go abroad the way textiles and manufacturing have gone overseas. Wishnatzki says if that happens, “Plant City will become a ghost town.”
“People look at farming and farm work nostalgically. But this is real work; it’s not like picking a box of strawberries or a bushel of oranges for an hour for fun. This is an all-day affair, and it’s hard work,” Wishnatzki says.
So perhaps we should drop the talk about deporting millions of people, develop a workable guest worker program that takes into consideration a multitude of different needs, and offer an amnesty period for people with expired visas to go home without further penalty in the future.
Let workers keep working
Those Hispanic immigrants picking our fruits and vegetables in the hot sun are no different than others who came before them looking to make a better life. People like the Chinese and the Irish immigrants who arrived here en masse in the 19th century. The Irish in large part built the Erie Canal, and the Chinese laid 90 percent of our Western states’ railroad tracks.
Of the Irish, The Chicago Post once wrote, “The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses. … Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country.”
For the Chinese, our country repaid them by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration into the United States.
History tends to repeat itself, and once again, many among us respond to immigrants with fear because they look different, speak a different language and have different customs. But deep down, we know that immigrants (legal or illegal) aren’t the problem with our nation. If we as Americans want to fix our country’s problems through deportation, the people we ought to consider deporting are the 535 members of Congress who made the mess we’re in.
In the meantime, let’s let those who want to work in the fields (or elsewhere) get the job done.
Chris Ingram is a Republican political consultant and Bay News 9 analyst.