People in the United States pay less for their food by percentage of income than any other modern country. We expect to walk into a store at any time of the year and find any fruit or vegetable that we want to buy. We expect meat and milk to be plentiful and reasonable in cost. And one of the reasons that Americans have this cheap, available food is because of immigrants, legal and illegal.
While planting and harvesting field crops like soybeans, corn, and wheat has become largely mechanized, with just a few people tending hundreds of acres, many of our fruit and vegetable crops still require humans to plant, tend and harvest them in great numbers. Livestock farmers require workers to handle animals and slaughterhouses require people to kill and process meat.
While Americans used to feel no shame in farm labor it seems that now farm labor is not a job they are willing to do, even if decent wages are offered. Ask most farmers who have a crop that needs humans to tend and harvest it what their success rate in finding American workers is. In most places they cannot find enough workers, even though the unemployment rate in that area may be high. In livestock production areas farmers have offered good wages with medical benefits and still do not find enough US citizens to take the jobs.
Migrant or immigrant labor is often termed “unskilled” but while it may not take a college degree, it takes experience and skill to do a lot of farm work well. Pruning grape vines, picking strawberries, staking tomatoes, applying pesticides, milking cows, slaughtering a pig, and fixing broken farm equipment are all skills that illegal or migrant workers often perform. People who have these skills are valuable to farmers, and their livelihood is often dependent on finding that help. And those skills help keep food for Americans cheap and plentiful.
Short of demanding that citizens who show up at welfare and unemployment offices go to work with any farmer or slaughterhouse owner who needs them, enough US citizens to produce and harvest US food just aren’t available. They don’t have the skills. And you can imagine the indignation and protesting that would occur if US citizens were forced to do field work and other tasks.
Slavery and human abuse
Farmers and livestock producers have long turned to immigrants, legal and illegal to fill the labor voids. It is often frustrating and difficult to get enough labor through legal work visas and farmers lack the time to deal with the paperwork and traveling involved. Increasingly they turn to “recruiters” or labor managers to hire the help they need, in affect they subcontract farm labor. This has also allowed them to escape much of the punishment for hiring illegal immigrants and for abuses to the people who work on their farms or in their businesses. They simply claim they have no knowledge of the abuse or illegal status and push blame off on the subcontractor. Unfortunately the legal system often does little to punish the subcontractors.
People who enter the country illegally have few rights and they may suffer incredible abuse at the hands of people who may have encouraged them, even coerced, bribed and blackmailed them into crossing the border. Some illegals are held in actual slavery. Their wages are taken by their “boss” and they are locked up when they aren’t working. If they try to escape or get help they are hunted down and beaten, sometimes killed. Their families are threatened. Slavery in the US is real, there are many documented cases.
In many more cases workers are kept in “debt slavery”. They owe a big debt to the recruiter for bringing them here. They are forced to rent rooms, or sometimes a bed in a box trailer or tent at outrageous amounts. They pay top dollar for food, for rides to doctors, clothing, anything a recruiter or boss can deduct from their wages. They keep working and often stay longer than they intended or want to, in order to pay these debts and support their families.
Illegal workers are forced to work without protection in fields wet with toxic pesticides or even while pesticides are being sprayed. They are worked long hours in poor weather often without adequate food or water. They are beaten when they don’t work fast enough or they have “attitude.” Women are sexually abused.
(By the way slavery and human abuse occur in areas other than agriculture. Illegal workers in nursing homes, convenience stores, restaurants and fast food places, hotels and private homes where they work as servants are also enslaved and abused.)
How the new immigration law helps
Provisions in the new immigration law, will if passed, encourage people to seek work visas, with an increase in the number of agriculture workers allowed into the country. If you can get a legal document to work, you will be less likely to fall into the hands of an abuser or held as a slave. If people are here now illegally working in agricultural fields they can apply for a permit and if they continue to work in agriculture for 5 years, and fulfill certain other requirements, they may be granted legal citizenship. This encourages labor to remain in agriculture, where skilled workers are needed. And it allows Americans to continue to enjoy reasonably priced food by ensuring that farmers will have the help they need to produce that food.
Provisions in the law will also provide punishments for those have illegal workers on their property, whether they hired them or hired a labor subcontractor. Owners of property where slavery and human abuse occur will be punished along with the abusers. People who have legal status are less likely to suffer abuse in silence. They will be happy to pay taxes and remain law abiding citizens while working. They will buy things at our stores, eat at restaurants, support local causes, go to movies and sporting events. People who are willing to work long and hard at jobs Americans don’t want, for a chance to become an American citizen, should be welcome in our country.
If you want to continue to buy cheap food and you don’t like the idea of human slavery and abuse in America, tell your legislator’s to get the job done- pass the immigration reform bill.