Liberals frame the debate over illegal immigration as a dilemma: either America grants amnesty to aliens or the economy will collapse. Some even imply that Americans will starve to death because of higher food prices—who would pick America’s fruits and veggies if not illegals?
Bruce Goldstein, president of a nonprofit called Farmworker Justice, boldly claims that “if we were to [deport all illegal aliens], our agricultural system would collapse.” Collapse.
This is nonsense. American agriculture won’t collapse without illegal labor. Why not? Because there are plenty of technological solutions, and American workers available to pick up the slack. It’s time we put this myth to bed.
Here are the facts.
First, agriculture is not a labor-intensive industry, and it hasn’t been for decades. Less than 2 percent of Americans work in agriculture, according to data from the World Bank. That number has been on the decline since 1960, when roughly 6 percent of Americans worked on farms. If trends continue, we could expect the number to continue to decline. Thanks to the wonders of mechanization, machines now do everything from threshing wheat to milking cows. The bottom line: most farmers do not “benefit” from cheap illegal labor, since their labor costs are minimal to begin with.
The “exception” to this rule are fruit and nut farms, located primarily in California. Crops like raspberries and almonds are notoriously difficult for machines to pick. There are many reasons for this including the fact that berries require a “soft touch,” they ripen at different times, and bushes are tough for machinery to navigate. These labor-intensive farms are the main agricultural culprits when it comes to hiring illegal workers—after all, they have the most to gain.
But even labor-intensive agriculture doesn’t depend upon illegal labor—that’s just icing on the cake. In reality, the industry could get by without illegal workers since only 4 percent of American agricultural workers are illegal aliens, according to a report in National Review. Likewise, only 1 in 6 workers in California’s nut orchards are in the country illegally. Removing illegals from the system would be inconvenient for orchards, but it wouldn’t drive them out of business—the remaining employees would simply have to work a few hours of overtime per day.
Without Illegal Aliens, Who Will Pick the Crops?
There are two ways for the agriculture industry to replace illegal workers: they could either hire Americans or invest in better technology.
At this moment, roughly 23 million Americans are unemployed. Some of them have experience in agriculture. On top of this, America has a massive problem with seasonal unemployment for its college students. Either way, there are more than enough Americans to fill a potential farm labor shortage. The only reason Americans are not working in agriculture is that they cannot compete with cheap illegal workers. If you read this document published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you will find that millions of Americans—of all races—currently work as janitors, laborers, and agricultural workers. If farmers were required to pay market wages, they wouldn’t have a problem finding employees.
But without that cheap labor, won’t the cost of produce go up? Yes—but not by much. Higher labor costs can only result in higher prices to the degree that labor impacts the product’s cost. For example, higher wages for train conductors do not appreciably impact rail shipping costs because there are so few conductors per unit of freight—rail is capital-intensive. Contrast this with some retail outlets that spend 70 percent of their revenue on labor costs.
Agriculture—even fruit and nut orchards—are relatively capital-intensive. The labor costs aren’t all that significant per unit of produce. Proof is in the numbers. A 2011 report published by the Federation for American Immigration Reform found that the agriculture industry was one of America’s most profitable sectors, and could easily afford to pay its workers 20-30 percent more without significantly cutting into profits.
Further, research by Philip Martin, a leading expert on farm labor and migration issues, found that labor costs are negligible compared to the retail cost of produce. Martin in 2006 found that only 5-6 cents of every dollar spent on produce is due to labor costs. Therefore, if illegal aliens were removed from the labor force entirely, and labor costs rose by up to 40 percent to attract American workers, labor would still only account for 7-9 cents. Over the course of a year, this works out to just $9 extra for the average household. This is nothing, especially when you remember that illegal immigration costs America between $115 and $140 billion annually.
Can Technology Replace Illegal Immigrant Labor?
The second option, improving technology and embracing mechanization, is the strategy employed by America’s wheat, corn, and dairy industry. Have you ever had trouble affording flour or milk? Probably not. You can thank mechanization for this fact, not illegal aliens.
Although adopting new technology can be expensive, it brings costs down in the long run. And as it turns out, there’s a good argument to be made that the American fruit and nut industry’s addiction to cheap illegal labor has stifled technological development, and kept prices artificially high. Farmers should, and could mechanize—today. The technology exists if only America’s fruit farms would embrace it. For example, an American company called “Abundant Robotics” has developed a fruit-picking robot that can harvest apples and peaches. Other companies have developed machines that are able to pick much smaller, more delicate fruit, like grapes and strawberries.
America’s farmers don’t have to rely on illegal alien labor. This is a myth cooked up by the pro-illegal immigration lobby to further its agenda. Nothing more. I’d go so far as to argue that illegal immigration actually has no economic benefits on the whole—the gains are reaped only by special interest groups, while America pays the price. In the end, evidence must prevail over emotion: illegal immigration must stop.