The Partnership for a New American Economy, a group that unites former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and media mogul Rupert Murdoch in a push for amnesty and open- border immigration policies, and the Agriculture Coalition For Immigration Reform, a trade group that represent nursery, landscape, and horticultural professionals, published a report on labor shortages in the agricultural sector. Not surprisingly, the report claimed that “America’s broken immigration system has made it particularly difficult for U.S. growers to find the labor they need.” This conclusion substitutes a “need” for a “want,” a fundamental error when examining labor markets, while it obscures the fact that what agribusiness wants is to pay farm laborers in the United States below-poverty wages.
There are a lot of problems with the report’s methodology, which was designed to achieve a particular outcome favorable to the agribusiness lobby. Among them, inadequate citations (a scrupulous researcher does not make it difficult for a reader to track down the data cited as evidence), erroneous wage comparisons (comparing median and mean wages), and imprecise definitions (does the labor share of produce costs contain only direct labor costs, or do they incorporate transportation and processing costs? Who knows?).
The report claims that because large commercial growers in the U.S. can’t find workers, more produce is being imported from abroad. The report’s author acknowledges that “experts often cite growing international trade and free trade agreements as the key cause for the recent domestic market share decline,” but why pay attention to experts when those who have a vested interest in driving down wages and condition for farm laborers are paying you to support that objective? Of course trade agreements have increased imports of produce, as have greater consumption and consumption patterns, which have outpaced domestic production (the U.S. imports a lot of kiwi fruit).
And yes, a labor shortage is a problem for farmers, but not because Americans are lazy and the H-2A program is “not feasible.” The reason farmers can’t find enough workers is that they offer such poor pay that it is no longer worthwhile for many Central Americans to immigrate to the United States illegally to take farm work. Amnestying illegal aliens in the United States, most of whom are not working in agriculture, will not cause workers to flock to the fields. But agribusiness knows that an amnesty will cause a new cohort of illegal aliens to enter the U.S. who are willing to endure a few years of indentured servitude in exchange for permanent residency in the United States.
Commercial asparagus farmers in Washington State are the perfect illustration of this phenomenon. When NAFTA was implemented in 1994, it gradually phased out a tariff on Mexican asparagus over a period of 14 years. As the tariff decreased, asparagus imports from Mexico increased (Peruvian asparagus has been exempt from tariffs since 1991). As imports increased, Washington growers convinced the state and federal legislatures to subsidize their operations. Now that these subsidies are under threat as battles rage over budget cuts, growers in the Evergreen State are raising holy heck about the prospect of competing in the market place, which now provides better jobs for farm laborers outside the United States. Asparagus growers in Washington State could pay more to attract domestic workers, they could participate in the H-2A program (which would require them to pay higher wages), or they could lobby the U.S. government to open the immigration floodgate –which is what they have chosen to do.
Those pushing for amnesty and mass immigration have so much money to throw around that they seem to have gotten lazy. In the good old days they would have at least put some effort into their work so that their claims weren’t so transparently specious. This new report is not designed to be taken seriously as a piece of legitimate research but to provide cover for politicians who cannot properly explain why the free market should be circumvented to benefit moneyed interests (re: Renee Elmers). Then again, one can’t really blame the agribusiness lobby for believing that they don’t have to present any real evidence to support their claims, but that U.S. immigration policy is made on a pay-for-play basis. That’s been standard practice for the last 30 years.