California growers still talking about the "jobs Americans won't do"

There are a pair of articles in the Los Angeles times this week which highlight important questions regarding the ongoing debate over immigration reform and enforcement efforts. The first one has to do with the long known phenomenon of jobs being a magnet for illegal immigrants considering entering the United States. One argument we hear in response from liberals who favor open borders is that there are simply too many jobs which “Americans won’t do.” Reporters have been talking to employers in one of the largest employment sectors generally referenced in the stories, that being agriculture. They paint a depressing picture of a farm owner who travels around to places frequented by day workers and the homeless yet finds himself unable to locate anyone willing to go to work for as much as $14 or even $16 per hour.

This may sound confusing to the many people out there still looking for a job so it’s worth giving this interview a read.

Some farmers are even giving laborers benefits normally reserved for white-collar professionals, like 401(k) plans, health insurance, subsidized housing and profit-sharing bonuses. Full-timers at Silverado Farming, for example, get most of those sweeteners, plus 10 paid vacation days, eight paid holidays, and can earn their hourly rate to take English classes.

But the raises and new perks have not tempted native-born Americans to leave their day jobs for the fields. Nine in 10 agriculture workers in California are still foreign born, and more than half are undocumented, according to a federal survey.

Instead, companies growing high-value crops, like Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Napa, are luring employees from fields in places like Stockton that produce cheaper wine grapes or less profitable fruits and vegetables.

We are unfortunately dealing with an industry sector which is almost unique compared to other fields of employment. It’s absolutely true that farm labor is some of the most physically demanding work you are likely to find. (I do not make this statement in a vacuum since I grew up in a farm community and spent all my summers doing precisely that sort of stoop labor on family farms.) But it seems to me that the subject of the story is taking a rather rocky approach to finding workers. If you make it known that you have jobs which don’t even require a high school degree but are paying up to 1 1/2 times more than the minimum wage being offered at fast food outlets (or even higher), I find it difficult to believe that some young, healthy people won’t be showing up. That doesn’t mean that the homeless shelter is full of folks who are ready, willing or able to take on such tasks. Also, the guys you typically see hanging out in the parking lot at Home Depot looking for day work are specifically targeting construction jobs, and they tend to pay even more than the field hands are being offered, albeit under the table in many cases.

It would be interesting to find out if the state employment division is doing an effective job of getting information about these employment opportunities out to the public, particularly those filing unemployment claims. Yes, it’s hard work, but if it pays well enough I simply refuse to believe that you couldn’t find people to do it. But even if you can’t, the article discusses some of the other options which the employers have and are already taking advantage of. When labor costs become too high for the business to remain profitable many employers turn to automation. We’re already seeing that in the fast food sector and other retail operations. Also, the labor market operates on supply and demand like anything else not controlled by the government. You may have to raise your labor costs in order to find workers and that means you may have to charge a bit more for your produce. It’s food. People will still have to buy it.

The other half of this equation is how the “jobs magnet” relates to efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants looking to take these positions. We discussed one test case in California a few weeks ago where arrests at a restaurant actually made a positive difference. The LA Times focuses on why this isn’t happening in the world of agriculture and how that could possibly change in a second article.

In the never-ending political and rhetorical war over illegal immigration, immigrants usually have received most of the blame, while businesses have gotten a relative pass — from enforcement and vitriol alike.

“If you take hypocrisy and then put in a good dose of unintended consequences, you can see why we are in such a mess,” Reed, now semiretired, said of immigration enforcement.

For all President Trump’s tough talk on deportations and building a wall on the Mexican border, his executive orders on immigration so far make no mention of targeting employers. Nor did he mention employers when, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, he renewed his pledge to build the border wall.

Though Trump’s rhetoric on illegal immigration is unusual compared with previous presidents, his basic approach to enforcement is not.

Most of this comes back to the E-Verify system. As long as the penalties for hiring illegal immigrants remain low and the barrier to successfully prosecuting employers by way of needing to prove that they “knowingly” hired illegal aliens is so high, were not going to make much progress. E-Verify needs to be mandatory and the penalties for not using it need to provide a sufficient disincentive so the jobs simply will not be available to those in the country illegally. That won’t happen without legislative action on both state and federal level. If we can’t at least accomplish that much, then we’re not really serious about fixing this problem.