Not Enough Mexicans
As Congress tackles immigration reform and resentment of laborers from Mexico swells, few are facing the real nature of the crisis.
Thursday, December 1, 2005
Every year since 1992, an estimated half million undocumented immigrants have crossed the border illegally to enter the US. That is more people than have immigrated to the US legally over the same period of time.
The US is now home to some 10 million undocumented residents. Never before in history have such a large percentage of American residents been here illegally.
Around 2.5 million of these so-called illegal aliens live in California. One in four—about 600,000, more than 80 percent of whom are Mexican—work in the state’s agricultural industry. And still, with undocumented laborers making up half of the state’s farm labor force, agriculture faces a growing labor shortage.
One small example illustrates the size of the problem: In September, the shortage cost raisin growers in the Central Valley $300,000, as farmers extended the season by nearly a month because they had less than half the people they needed to pick and dry their grapes. “The longer the grapes are out there, the costs just keep piling on,” says Glen Goto, president of the Raisin Bargaining Association in Fresno.
In total, California farmers worked the harvest season with 100,000 fewer workers than they needed, according to the ag trade group Western Growers.
Tom Nassif, president of that trade group, is spearheading a public lobbying campaign that proclaims what for years was too taboo to say out loud: the agriculture industry relies on undocumented laborers. And Nassif—whose organization represents the growers who supply half of the nation’s fresh produce—says the problem his members face isn’t too many illegal immigrant workers, but too few.
“A combination of factors has been building to create what is now clearly a crisis for our members, and for agriculture in general,” Nassif says. “If something is not done immediately to resolve the situation, the agriculture industry will suffer major economic damage. The time to act has now arrived.”
Bob Nielsen, senior vice president for the Salinas-based lettuce-growing giant Tanimura&Antle, agrees that things must change for the future of the industry.
“We’re at a point where we need to talk about the issue and deal with it,” Nielsen says. “Immigration laws have worked, but they don’t work well enough now. Immigration laws, like most laws, respond to situations rather than get in front of the parade.”
While the vast majority of harvests in the Salinas Valley are done for the year, and most fieldworkers have followed seasonal jobs to Arizona and Southern California—where the labor shortage is reportedly worse—local growers and contractors say a lack of field hands is a fast-growing dilemma.
Alfredo Urquidez II, owner of Roberta’s Labor Contractor in Soledad, which supplies workers for growers in Monterey County, says stricter government regulations are putting painful pressure on the ag industry. “It’s exactly like that movie, A Day Without a Mexican,” Urquidez says, referring to the 2003 film mock-umentary in which the nation grinds to a halt when all of the Mexican workers suddenly disappear.
“I’ve lost a lot of people ever since about three years ago, when they started requiring us to prove that the people we hire are legal.”
Despite more stringent hiring rules, Urquidez says, many growers continue to skirt the laws and knowingly hire illegal workers. If they don’t, he says, “then who’s going to do the work?”
On this issue, the United Farmworkers union is standing shoulder to shoulder with the growers.
“For decades growers have complained about labor shortages,” says Marc Grossman, UFW spokesman. “But today, there is merit to what they are saying. We’ve seen it.”
To agricultural leaders and the UFW, the solution is
simple: legalize the illegal workers already toiling in the
fields—more than 80 percent of whom are Mexican-born—while
making it easier for growers to hire foreign workers from
~ ~ ~
President George W. Bush this week traveled to Texas and Arizona in a new effort to move his own ambitious immigration reform policy. In a break from the rhetoric of compassion that has marked most of the president’s statements about immigration since he first ran for office, his comments Monday were filled with tough talk about border security. He toured the El Paso region wearing a Border Patrol jacket, joined by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Paul Beeson of the El Paso Border Patrol.
“Step one of a border-control strategy is, increase the resources, so the people standing behind me are able to do their jobs,” Bush said. “Step two is when we catch somebody, don’t release them. Catch-and-release has been a long-standing policy of the federal government, and we’re going to change that.”
But along with the tough talk, Bush stuck to his long-held position that the nation’s current immigration laws are inhumane.
“We’re a nation of law,” Bush said. “We’re also a compassionate nation. We’ve got to treat people with respect and dignity.”
When he first announced details of his reform policy, in a January 2004 speech at the White House, Bush was joined by the Mexican ambasador to the US, as well as a host of Latino leaders including former Interior Secretary Manny Lujan, Gil Moreno of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans and Hector Flores of LULAC.
In that speech Bush promised that his reforms would result in better border security, but most of his comments focused on creating more openness.
“By tradition and conviction, our country is a welcoming society,” Bush said. “America is a stronger and better nation because of the hard work and the faith and entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants.
“Out of common sense and fairness, our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling. We must make our immigration laws more rational, and more humane. And I believe we can do so without jeopardizing the livelihoods of American citizens.”
A bill now in Congress, called AgJobs, aims to do just that.
AgJobs goes a step further than Bush’s guest worker proposal. It contains an especially controversial “earned legalization” clause, under which a worker who completes 365 days of farm labor over six years would qualify, along with his or her family, for permanent residency.
Bush’s immigration bill also has a legalization provision. Bush’s bill grants guest-worker status to illegal immigrants working in any industry—provided they pay a hefty fine, have a clean criminal record and can prove they’re employed.
AgJobs, which was authored by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was effectively blocked by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. AgJobs’ authors are gearing up for another go at passage early next year. But a swelling crowd of immigration bills in Congress promise tough competition—several congressional leaders have in recent weeks pledged to pass a comprehensive immigration package in 2006. Most Democrats and moderate Republican legislators back some sort of earned legalization for immigrants. But a growing number of very vocal anti-immigrant legislators detest the idea.
Led by US congressmembers Tom Tancredo, R-Colorado, and Duncan Hunter, R-San Diego, this bloc of hard-liners argue that illegal aliens steal jobs from able-bodied Americans, dilute American culture, and are an affront to the nation’s legal norms.
Their immigration bills prioritize—above all else—militarizing the country’s border with Mexico while increasing penalties for employers who hire unauthorized workers.
As the immigration debate heats up, one fact sure to weigh heavily on any decision is that 7 million illegal workers now make up nearly 5 percent of the total US labor force.
Only a small fraction of these, about 15 percent, work in agriculture. The rest are in construction, manufacturing, restaurants, hotels and other vital tax-revenue producing industries.
While hard-liners swear illegal immigrants must be booted
out to save America, none explain how the nation’s economy
would manage without them.
~ ~ ~
The TRUE Enforcement and Security Act, introduced by Southern California Republican Duncan Hunter in November, would restrict the flow of undocumented migrants via a “security fence” along the entire 2,000 miles of the US-Mexican border in the name of homeland safety.
The fence is estimated to cost anywhere between $2 billion and $5 billion and is opposed by environmentalists, Democrats and the Mexican government.
In addition to erecting a transcontinental fence, Hunter’s bill would empower states and cities to enforce immigration laws. Nowhere does it acknowledge the role of illegal immigrant labor in the country’s economy. Instead, it sees immigration through the lens of the war on terrorism.
“We need to begin discussing this issue with the intent of reforming what I consider to be one of America’s greatest vulnerabilities,” Hunter says.
“Unfortunately, illegal aliens continue to funnel directly into many of our local communities and adversely impact our way of life by overwhelming our schools, inundating our healthcare system and, most concerning, threatening our safety.”
Many ridicule Hunter’s plan because—even if it were possible to build the thing—the fence would do little to stem the tide of illegal immigration, and would do much to stimulate immigrant smugglers’ creativity.
Rep. Steve Pierce, R-New Mexico, says the fence would “be subject to the same problems we are experiencing today, such as people tunneling under the [existing] fence or finding other ways to breach unpatrolled expanses of the proposed barrier.”
Others point out that half of the country’s 10 million undocumented people arrived legally through some sort of visa, and then stayed to work and live. A wall wouldn’t do much to stop them.
Even if the 2,000-mile border wall is not built—or only portions of it are—most members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, favor placing more guards, unmanned planes and infrared sensors at the country’s borders to prevent people from arriving illegally.
The trend to fortify the US-Mexican border isn’t new.
Since 1993, the money spent by the federal government annually on border security has quintupled from $740 million to $3.8 billion last year.
A large chunk of those dollars went to pay for Operation Guardian. Launched in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, Operation Guardian beefed up the busiest portions of the US-Mexican border. This had the effect of pushing the flow of undocumented migrants to desolate stretches of deserts. Since then, more than 3,000 migrants have perished—mostly of dehydration—en route north in the unforgiving desert lands.
The irony is that in the six years after the launching of Operation Guardian—from 1994 to 2000—the US witnessed the greatest wave of illegal border crossings in history. More than 3 million undocumented immigrants came to the US during that period.
Most of these immigrants provided labor that helped fuel the economic boom of the 1990s. During that time—with illegal immigration booming—the national unemployment rate actually fell from 5.6 percent in 1990 to 4 percent in 2000.
But their newfound visibility on the streets of America also sparked a strong immigrant backlash, especially in states where their numbers were highest and budget shortfalls were most acute. An early anti-immigrant response came in 1993, when the California Legislature barred illegal aliens from obtaining drivers’ licenses.
Then, in 1994, California voters approved Prop. 187, which would have denied public services to undocumented people—including tossing hordes of children out of public schools.
Prop. 187 was eventually deemed unconstitutional. But following California’s lead, Congress passed new laws in 1996 that limited public services to illegal immigrants.
More recently, Arizona and Virginia voters approved Prop. 187-type legislation, all part of a strategy by hard-line anti-immigration activists to maximize the social and economic marginalization of undocumented immigrants.
Now, California Republican lawmakers are circulating a proposal by state Assemblyman Ray Haynes, R-Riverside, to create a state border patrol whose primary responsibility would be to round up illegal residents and help deport them.
“Illegal immigrants cost the state Treasury between $5 billion and $10 billion a year,” says state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, who backed Prop. 187 and supports the state border patrol idea. “That figure is just for education, health and Department of Corrections costs to the state.”
That’s only half of the equation, according to some analysts who claim that undocumented immigrants’ contribution to the economy in labor, taxes and buying power is equal or greater than what they cost governments in public services.
But anti-immigrant legislators like Sen. Bob Dutton, R-San Bernardino, insist that legislation targeting illegal immigrants is in the best interest of US workers.
“We do believe [illegal immigrants] are taking jobs from people who can be working,” says Larry Venus, Dutton’s spokesman.
In the farm fields, at least, that argument doesn’t hold up.
“That’s absolutely false,” says Urquidez in Soledad, echoing what scores of growers, elected officials and farmworkers interviewed for this story said.
“I’ve looked for [legal] workers in the past, and they don’t last. They can’t handle it. Be they black, Filipino or white, they’ll quit after three, maybe five days, and complain that the work is too hard and the pay is too low.”
Farmworkers generally earn just over $6.75 an hour, the state’s minimum wage. And, because their work is only seasonal, about half of them earn less than $10,000 a year. Few have health insurance.
Timothy Chelling, spokesman for Western Growers, is succinct on the issue.
“If we didn’t need them, we wouldn’t be hiring them.”
Chelling says it’s impossible to guess what a head of lettuce might cost at the grocery store if all of agriculture’s illegal workers were deported overnight.
“It wouldn’t cost you anything,” he says, “because there
wouldn’t be a head of lettuce to buy.”
~ ~ ~
Agriculture remains the state’s biggest industry, producing about $27 billion in annual sales. Yet some anti-immigrant legislators and leaders seem willing to sacrifice it for the sake of keeping out undocumented Spanish-speaking people born south of the border.
“As long as there’s not an unemployment rate of zero, the issue isn’t a lack of labor, but how much growers are willing to pay their workers,” McClintock says.
McClintock argues that the best way to solve the current labor shortage is to deport all undocumented immigrants, and oblige farmers to pay high-enough wages in the fields so that unemployed Americans can become farmworkers.
“The issue here is that legal immigrants are coming to America, they are coming in obedience of the laws, and they are assimilating into American society,” McClintock says. “And illegal immigration undermines that. What agricultural industry leaders are really saying is that they don’t want to pay American laborers what the market requires in order to make a buck.”
McClintock calls farmers who hire undocumented foreign workers “opportunists,” and says “such people are beneath contempt.”
Another hard-line activist says the US should simply abandon agricultural crops that require cheap labor.
Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, DC—an anti-immigration think tank and lobbying group—says the country can import those same agricultural goods from Third World countries.
“We can have the Mexicans pick strawberries harvested in Mexico instead of importing them to pick the strawberries here,” Krikorian says.
“We have a large, flexible economy, and the idea that high
school drop-outs are a precious natural resource that we need
to import, because we’re running out of them, is silly.”
~ ~ ~
The stereotypical image of undocumented workers as brow-beaten and bent over picking crops is no longer entirely accurate.
Only about 15 percent of the country’s estimated 7 million illegal workers are employed in agriculture. The remaining 85 percent—nearly 6 million workers—perform major roles in construction, manufacturing, landscaping, restaurant and hospitality industries.
No one knows what percentage of the labor force they make up in those industries. But one study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that about 25 percent of all drywall and ceiling installers in the US are undocumented, as are 25 percent of all dishwashers.
State Assemblyman Simón Salinas, D-Salinas, says one of the main reasons undocumented workers are lacking in agriculture is that many switch over to work in construction and restaurants—where pay and conditions are better—as soon as they can.
“I was a farmworker, and I don’t look forward to going back,” Salinas says. “It’s an honorable job, but it’s a tough job.”
The difference between undocumented farmworkers and workers in other industries, Salinas says, is that the latter still aren’t openly acknowledged by society.
President Bush’s immigration bill, like many other immigration proposals, would tighten the screws on any employers who hire illegal laborers.
“A critical part of any temporary worker program is work-site enforcement,” Bush says. “My bill strengthens our enforcement capabilities by adding new agents and doubling their resources. We’ve got to crack down on employers who flout our laws.”
One way Bush’s bill aims to do that is by requiring employers to run a would-be worker’s Social Security number through a national database to verify if it’s fraudulent or not.
But many are skeptical, and with good reason. Even though it’s been illegal to hire undocumented workers since 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a massive amnesty bill, enforcement is almost nonexistent today.
Last year, only three companies in the entire country were fined for hiring undocumented workers.
While Congress again winds up to crack down on employers who break the law, the need for cheap, low-skilled domestic labor will keep expanding, according to the US Department of Labor.
By 2010, about 24.7 million new jobs will be created for people who have minimal education. That’s about 43 percent of all new job openings in the US. A study by the American Immigration Law Foundation says the inevitable outcome will be a need for even more unskilled labor.
“With rising educational levels among native-born workers—90.5 percent had a high school degree in 2000 compared to 86.8 percent in 1990—immigrant workers are necessary to fill gaps in the labor force,” says the law foundation’s report titled Mexican Immigrant Workers and the US Economy.
And yet, in spite of a growing need for them, the US every year grants only 66,000 non-agricultural worker visas to low-skilled laborers from abroad.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, Central Americans and other migrants who every year dream of earning dollars don’t even bother applying for an American worker’s visa. They just come.
A union organizer in Pacific Grove says the hospitality industry would be in big trouble if they didn’t have these workers.
“They wouldn’t be able to function without undocumented workers,” says Sergio Rangel, vice president for Union Local 483. “That’s the case not only in Monterey County, but everywhere.”
Jerry Sandoval, owner of Sandoval Construction Co. in Salinas, regularly sees undocumented and unlicensed work crews building homes, painting walls and installing roofs.
“They provide a service that needs to filled at a reasonable price,” says Sandoval, who is also a developer and has worked on building projects across the county. “A lot of them even run their own businesses.”
While these workers should ideally be legalized and
licensed, Sandoval admits that it’s thanks to these workers
that consumers might pay $25 an hour to install a roof rather
than $45 an hour.
~ ~ ~
The labor shortage in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans has been so acute that the Department of Homeland Security recently suspended sanctioning employers that hired workers who couldn’t prove their residency.
A New York Times article published Nov. 10 revealed that some Louisiana employers were paying as much as $30 an hour to do salvage work because there simply weren’t enough workers.
And so like bees to honey, thousands of unauthorized immigrants from neighboring states raced to Louisiana to clean the filthy remains of the city and build it anew.
Meanwhile, most of the city’s former residents have been slow to return.
Some African-American leaders in Louisiana have nonetheless fretted openly about what the arrival of these Spanish-speaking laborers bodes for the future of New Orleans.
Bob Nielsen says that’s a natural enough reaction, just like the one most Americans are now feeling towards immigrant laborers spreading into their towns and counties across the nation.
The key to dealing with that, Nielsen says, is to talk about the issue without getting too worked up about it.
“We can’t pull back and lob insults at each other,” he says, “because that will get us nowhere.”
Blanca Zarazuago, a member of the Monterey County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says that besides vital labor, undocumented immigrants import something even more valuable.
“You have an urgency for success when you’re an immigrant,” said Zarazuago, a lawyer whose father came to the US under the Bracero program in the 1930s.
“Making that leap emotionally and geographically commits you to do the best you can. And that’s a type of motivation you don’t see in a lot of people these days, which is why employers hire them.”
Next week: Illegal Immigrants tell their stories.