With the election a week behind us, the hope that politicians from the two parties would actually work together to solve our nation’s problems is already starting to seem naive — with one exception. For the last four years, the Republican Party has followed an immigration policy driven by the loud and angry faction in its ranks that wants to deport all undocumented immigrants immediately. This was never a comfortable position for Republicans who see immigrants as hard-working and valuable members of their communities. Thankfully, the election results last week was interpreted by both parties as a mandate for bi-partisan immigration reform.
Farmers from Maine to Florida on the East Coast and Washington to Southern California on the West Coast rely almost entirely on immigrant employees. Our nation’s current immigration policy as it applies to agriculture is essentially insane. Every year, farmers plant crops knowing full well that the majority of their workers have false documents, and that if federal officials were to show up on their farm, they would be shut down. Their crops lost, their businesses destroyed. And every year, a handful of farms are randomly chosen as sacrificial lambs, like getting hit by a government-controlled tornado.
Meanwhile, the otherwise law abiding and hardworking people who are putting food on our tables gamble every time they drive to work or to the store that they won’t be stopped by the police, sent to jail, and deported without seeing their families. Fear of the law enforcement and government in general makes them less likely to seek help if they become the victims of crime or other injustice.
Anti-immigrant people like to say that native Americans would work on farms if farmers paid them more. This is faulty logic for so many reasons I can barely list them all. But the most important ones: Americans would never pay enough for their food to allow this to happen. There aren’t enough unemployed citizens living in agricultural areas to fill all the jobs that would become available if all the immigrants were deported. And farmers would not survive a single season with an entirely new, untrained, and unskilled labor force. Mechanization has eliminated millions of jobs in agriculture, but millions of jobs still must be done by hand. Futurists dream about armies of robots, but that is still decades — if not a century — away.
Agriculture is seasonal work in most of the country, and there are people in other countries who want to come here and work and then return home. For years, foreign workers spent part of each year working on a farm in the U.S. and used the money saved to invest in their own business or education back home. It is almost impossible for people to do that anymore. Tighter border enforcement has actually exacerbated many of the problems that the anti-immigrant lobby rails about, by forcing workers who used to migrate seasonally to bring their entire families here.
I hope in the end that our nation can find a way to safely and fairly allow immigrants to work and reside here legally. Finding a way to provide a reliable labor force for agriculture should be one of our top national security priorites — at least until the robots can take over.