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Pundit’s Mailbag —
Guest Worker Programs

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 22, 2009

We have written a great deal about immigration. Our recent piece, Will US Citizens Harvest Crops? brought some interesting mail:

Regarding your piece on immigration and the more specific question of what the AFL/Change to Win Coalition position is on AgJOBS. As Co-chair for the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR), which represents the diversity of those supporting AgJOBS, I must point out that the opinion expressed regarding general union opposition to guest workers, including AgJOBS, is inaccurate and needs to be corrected.

I would recommend the following statement:

“Considerable media attention has been given to statements released this past week by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win Coalition regarding the conditions for their support for comprehensive immigration reform legislation. While media reports indicate that major national labor unions do not support expanded guest worker programs but would consider a Commission to study the need for future guest worker programs as part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation, there is no doubt that the guest worker policy positions of these labor organizations do not include the H-2A guest worker reform provisions of AgJOBS. This union support has been communicated by representatives of the United Farm Workers Union to leaders of the national agricultural coalition spearheading efforts to pass AgJOBS this Congress. To the contrary, these labor organizations have and continue to support AgJOBs, including its H-2A guest worker reform provisions, as part of comprehensive immigration reform. It is important that this accurate message be communicated to the grower and farm worker communities.”

Thank You for the opportunity to clarify this very important information.

— Luawanna Hallstrom
Co-chair, ACIR

We appreciate Luawanna’s letter. She certainly works hard for the industry. Her day job is in the family business as she is Chief Operations Officer and General Manager for Harry Singh & Sons and Business Manager for Oceanside Produce. She is also Western Vice President for the National Council of Agricultural Employers and still manages to co-chair ACIR in her spare time. So we thank her for her service to the trade.

On the specifics of what the AFL-CIO and Change to Win Coalition actually endorse at this point, we find it difficult to say for sure. The new position paper does leave a little wiggle room:

Improvement, Not Expansion, of Temporary Worker Programs
The United States must improve the administration of existing temporary worker programs, but should not adopt a new “indentured” or “guest worker” initiative. Our country has long recognized that it is not good policy for a democracy to admit large numbers of workers with limited civil and employment rights.

AgJOBS requires that existing illegal immigrants who have worked in agriculture can be granted temporary residence status. Then they must continue to work in agriculture to earn an adjustment of status to permanent resident status. The United Farm Workers Union would like that as it creates a source of new members, whether the national labor federations will see that as an “indentured” initiative we are uncertain.

Certainly, as Luawanna points out, the United Farm Workers of America has endorsed AgJOBS, so has Change to Win, though we can find no official position by the AFL-CIO on the topic. Still, now there is a new mechanism, a commission, and it is hard to see how ag won’t get included in that process; certainly nothing was said at the press conference about an exclusion of agriculture from the commission and it is not in the position paper. It is also noticeable that nobody from the labor federations themselves wrote to correct us, although we know we have many readers in the labor movement.

One wonders if “deals” that were made last year won’t come undone with a new administration and a new attitude in the country. If AgJOBS is to pass, the passive support of these national federations may not be sufficient. So the question is not what they technically endorse, it is what are they prepared to fight for. We will soon find out.

Many thanks to Luawanna Hallstrom and ACIR for clarifying this important subject.

We also received a thoughtful comment from one not favorably disposed to guest worker programs:

It has been my experience that Guest Worker Programs, in the past, were nothing more than government-sponsored slavery. Workers were taken advantage of in many ways. Overcharged for food and shelter, physically and sexually abused by growers and labor contractors and often used as scabs in labor disputes.

These abuses in the Guest Worker Program are well documented and available to anyone interested in reporting all sides of the issue. Having been raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley to a family whose business was food retail and wholesale, I have seen these abuses first hand and challenge the view that guest workers are the answer to the “immigration issue”.

If abuses in California don’t do it for you…… check out Florida.

I very much enjoy your column but do have an issue with your Hannity-like swipes at President Obama… you should save those swipes for when you become a talent at Fox News.

— Michael Angelo
Director National Sales
Calavo Growers Inc.
Santa Paula, California

We thank Mike for being so blunt and sharing his personal experience with the broader industry. It is not easy to stand up against the official position of many industry organizations, but it is only through the courage of people like Mike that we can have an honest discussion on such issues.

At the same time, although we appreciate his frankness, we wouldn’t write using such strong language unless we were prepared to do the work to back up such assertions. And that is tougher than it sounds. Not only do we have to prove that people were held as slaves but we have to quantify it.

Slavery is a specific word with a specific meaning — what percentage of people in, say, the Bracero program were actually held in a condition that would be appropriate to call slavery? And how does that compare to how illegal immigrants are treated? After all, the recent allegations of “slavery” in Florida did not apply to a guest worker program… they referred to illegal immigrants. Still, it is worth noting that othersshare many of Mike’s concerns.

Just recently Jason L. Riley wrote in The Wall Street Journal a piece titled, Obama and the ‘Amnesty’ Trap, which was subtitled, “The Immigration Bottom Line: We Need More Legal Avenues” that argued for such programs:

The nation’s two largest labor groups, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, have already announced that they will oppose any new guest-worker initiatives and any significant expansion of temporary work programs already in place. Democrats and advocacy groups, who tend to see immigration as a humanitarian issue more than an economic one, will likely side with labor. But history suggests that such programs are effective in reducing illegal entries. Past experience shows that economic migrants have no desire to be here illegally. They will use the front door if it’s available to them, which reduces pressure on the border and frees up homeland security resources to target drug dealers, gang members, potential terrorists, and other real threats.

Nearly seven decades ago, the U.S. faced labor shortages in agriculture stemming from World War II, and growers turned to the Roosevelt administration for help. The result was the Bracero program, which allowed hundreds of thousands of Mexican farm workers to enter the country legally as seasonal laborers. In place from 1942 to 1964, the program was jointly operated by the departments of Justice, State and Labor. As the program was expanded after World War II to meet the labor needs of a growing U.S. economy, illegal border crossings fell by 95%. A 1980 Congressional Research Service report concluded that, “without question,” the program was “instrumental in ending the illegal alien problem of the mid-1940s and 1950s.” Apparently, the law of supply and demand doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande.

Beginning in 1960, the program was phased out after it faced opposition from labor unions. And since nothing comparable emerged to replace it, illegal entries began to rise again. The point isn’t that we need to resurrect the Bracero program, or that guest-worker programs alone will stop illegal immigration from Mexico. But a Bracero-like program with the proper worker protections ought to be the template. And expanding legal immigration ought to be where the Obama administration channels its energies.

Still, one doesn’t have to believe that guest worker programs lead to slavery or abuse to find them problematic.

The most interesting academic work in this field has been done by Philip Martin, a professor at UC Davis. You can look at a slideshow he developed on the subject of guest workers.

A key insight he develops is that temporary workers almost always become permanent. He attributes this phenomenon to “distortion and dependence.”

By distortion, he means that the availability of guest workers distorts the economy. In other words, if there is no labor to pick produce in a given area, nobody will plant trees there. But if there is a guest worker program, the trees get planted and if you try and end the guest worker program, the tree owner screams bloody murder that he will be put out of business. For political and economic reasons, the system will likely provide workers — legally or winked at.

By dependence, he means that the developing countries that send labor become dependent on remittances and ending a program can cause tremendous social unrest, revolution, etc., so we won’t really send the workers back.

Now, if the migrant program is not really going to be temporary, then why not just allow in more immigrants?

In our mind this brings us to the really key point. Simply letting in more immigrants or legalizing the ones who are here doesn’t actually solve the problem for agriculture. Because if you give people green cards, they find other jobs.

Now we have no delusions about making harvesting fun. But a lot of people take a lot of jobs that are very difficult: outdoor construction work, etc. Surely we can find a way to make harvesting work competitively with these other difficult jobs.

As far as Mike’s comments on our “Hannity-like swipes at President Obama,” although we suspect Sean would be insulted by the comparison, we actually try to swipe without fear or favor. If you read our discussion of the financial crisis, you will see we weren’t all that happy with President Bush and his administration either.

And as far as becoming a “talent” on Fox goes, well, we appreciate the thought and we have done quite a few pieces with Stuart Varney on the Fox Business Channel. We wonder what Rupert Murdoch would think?

Still, our roots are deep in the produce industry, and we are lucky enough to have a chance to make a difference doing something we enjoy. So you are probably stuck with us for some time to come.

Many thanks to both Luawanna Hallstrom and Michael Angelo for helping us address this important issue.

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