Sunday, May 23, 2010

Farm Bureau Federation Dishonestly Plugs AgJobs Program

Sunday's Sacramento Bee contains a trio of articles on immigration, including an essay by Paul Wenger, President of the California Farm Bureau Federation, entitled "Pass AgJobs Plan to Allow Seasonal Workers."

The article is incredible, because it leaves out the controversial, key piece of the AgJobs proposal. The "innovation" in the AgJobs program is to allocate 1.35 million green cards to the agriculture industry. Immigrants who can document five consecutive years of agriculture work would be eligible for permanent, resident status. That's a large and unprecedented, government granted "retention bonus" to ensure a steady supply of farm labor and keep wages low. It basically legalizes a 5-year revolving door, where roughly 250,000 to 300,000 low-skill immigrants come to the U.S. each year under the program, work farm jobs for 5-years, then will move out of agriculture when they get their green card. It's a very bold and controversial proposal.

Amazingly, Wenger's lengthy article doesn't even mention the green cards, or the blue cards workers in the program hold during their five year's of agricultural work. He describes AgJobs as a guest worker program where the farm workers will head home after the harvest - not as a permanent residency program where they are earning green cards. Some quotes...

We need a system that allows people from other countries to enter the United States - legally - while farm jobs are available, and to return to their home countries once the harvest season ends.

Fortunately, we have a solution to offer. It's a bill that goes by the acronym AgJOBS, re-introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein last year. The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act would reform existing temporary-worker programs for agriculture, to provide the sort of flexibility that would allow farmers in California and throughout the country to be assured that the people they hire have entered the country legally.

AgJOBS is a major change to immigration law that deserves serious debate. It's proponents in the agriculture industry should describe it honestly.

I want to help hardworking farm workers in the Valley, so it is tempting to support AgJOBS for their sake. But the real problem for the Valley's larger economic development is the chronically low-wages of its largest and most profitable industry, agriculture. In many ways, AgJOBS simply legalizes the status quo of our current low-wage, revolving door farm labor market. It is good for illegal-immigrant farmworkers and farmers, but I don't think it is good for economic development in general and it is very unfair to currently legal workers (farm and non-farm) and non-farm industries (not to mention it's eerie resemblance to indentured service.)

AgJOBS is a proposal that has been around for years, and UC-Davis Professor David Martin had this to say about it in an essay from the year 2000...
... the solution to farm worker problems is not a guest worker program that leaves the farm labor system unchanged. Even most farmers concede that history would likely repeat itself if illegal immigration were to be controlled and there were no new guest worker program. Wages would rise, there would be a rapid adoption of labor-saving machinery and better ways to manage now more expensive workers, and some crops might migrate to lower-wage countries.
Government policy should push agriculture toward a sustainable 21st century future, not permit it to revert to a 20th century "Harvest of Shame" past.


  1. I think the present system of wink-wink "I'm legal" does more to depress farm wages than the AgJobs bill. A desperate, scared workforce will accept low wages and violations of the wage and hour laws. We need to know who is coming into this country, and we need to afford them a safe and properly regulated working environment. We also need to let them go home from time to time without fear, and without them having to pay criminals to get back here.
    "Regular" Americans are neither constitutionally nor psychologically capable of doing most farm work. The only way to raise farm wages sustainably is to have profitable farms.

  2. Mr. Kurtz,

    There are indeed problems with the current system that AgJOBS could help. There is a case to be made, but that case should be made honestly and accurately describe the program. This article leaves out key information that is politically unpopular, and is therefore very deceptive.

    As for profitable farms will raise wages, you should provide some evidence to back that up. Farming had some extremely profitable years recently, yet farm wages barely budged even as farmers were crying about "labor shortages."

    That "regular" American argument is garbage too. The problem is pay and working conditions that match the tough requirements of the job. The job is tough, so it should pay MORE than alternative work. That's how market economies work, and how region's develop. Increase wages and you will attract immigrants out of other low-wage industry in addition

    Once you are paying $15-20 an hour and can't find labor, then come back with these proposals. I suspect it won't have to go that high, before the farm labor supply picks up, and crops and technology shift as they already have. If some farms go under, and some crops grow abroad, that is the cost of economic development for a region.


  3. I pay better than my neighbors, and provide vacation, pension, health insurance and housing. (Employees contribute toward the latter two, but at heavily subsidized rates). For that I get a stable, honest and loyal workforce. I would far rather some day pay 10 guys $20 per hour than 20 guys $10 per hour; and you're right, technology is going that way, at least if the enviros don't make us all go back to the Middle Ages. But there is no way your average American is going to do field work, (or clean motel roms) no matter what they are paid. They just don't have the soul for it. During the construction boom, I lost several young men who took the bait for higher hourly wages and no benefits. Most have come back and say they missed farm work because they enjoy the process of getting up early, making plants grow, being outdoors, etc. Our citizens are too removed from those ideas.
    Agriculture has at least been more honest than the hospitality, landscaping, and restaurant businesses in admitting they hire illegals. And of course our own Federal Government has been sucking in God knows how many hundreds of millions in social security and income tax receipts paid on bogus social security numbers.

  4. Great comment.

    Perhaps agriculture has been more honest than other industries about the labor situation. However, the article that is the subject of this post is not honest about what the agriculture industry is proposing.