If you ever get into an argument about immigration, sooner or later (probably sooner) somebody will majestically inform you, “But immigrants take jobs that Americans won’t do. Without immigrants, lettuce would cost 10 dollars a head.”
Sometimes the lettuce will cost 20 dollars a head, but the point—and absence of facts—is still the same: Immigration is necessary for national economic survival.
The argument was never very compelling, if only because it’s long been known that the labor that goes into producing a head of lettuce accounts for a measly 10 percent of its retail price, so it would take a good deal more than raising the wages of farm workers to hike the price to 10 dollars a head.
Today, however, the cheap labor argument has been definitively exploded.
The explosion took place last week on the pages of the New York Times, where a major story by Eduardo Porter went through the facts and figures—about how the cheap labor that mass immigration provides has helped keep American farm technology in the Dark Ages and caused American agriculture to wither in the face of global competition—and how the federal government has helped undermine the American farmer on behalf of Third World immigrants.
For decades, as everyone knows, American farmers have relied on the cheap, mainly illegal and mainly Mexican labor immigrants provide, but now, because of such nifty gimmicks as NAFTA and similar global trade agreements, the even cheaper labor of such paradises as Brazil, China, Chile and Turkey is making illegal immigrants unprofitable for the American farmer. American workers long ago discovered what “unprofitable” meant for them: They had to go, and that’s what it means for the immigrants too. [In Florida Groves, Cheap Labor Means Machines, By Eduardo Porter, March 22, 2004, also here]
“The Florida industry has to reduce costs to stay in business,”one agribusiness manager told Mr. Porter . “Mechanical harvesting is the only available way to do that today.”
As a matter of fact, it has always been the way to do that, but agribusiness didn’t want to believe it. Hence, as Mr. Porter writes , “Rather than make such investments [in new technology], farmers mostly focused on lobbying government for easier access to inexpensive labor.” The result was guest worker programs that let immigrants come here temporarily to work.
In 1979, President Carter’s Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland ended government financing of research into farming technology because he didn’t want to replace “an adequate and willing work force with machines.” That was just about the time we started hearing about how Americans wouldn’t take those jobs anyway.
The “adequate and willing work force” Mr. Bergland was talking about was made up of immigrants.
Later still, in 1986 “farmers were instrumental in winning passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized nearly three million illegal immigrants—more than a third under a special program for agriculture.”
Another result was that the progress of American farm technology shriveled. “Farmers’ investments in labor saving technology all but froze, and gains in labor productivity slowed,” Mr. Porter writes. As mass immigration rose in the 1980s, “Farmers’ capital investments fell 46.7 percent from their peak in 1980 through 1999.”
Today, with the competition from the cheaper labor of those portions of the Third World that remain where they are supposed to be, the days when American farmers could ignore technological improvements and investments are gone.
Hence, orange growers in Florida, for example, are now desperately trying to deploy mechanized “canopy shakers” that rake some 35,000 oranges out of a tree in 15 minutes. It would take four workers all day to do that.
There are theories about why the Greeks and Romans, who acquired a respectable knowledge of science and engineering, never developed an industrial revolution. One such theory is that they had too much cheap labor to need labor-saving industry—in the form of slaves. When you conquer the world, slaves are a lot cheaper and easier to take care of than machines.
Today, we have our own form of slavery in mass immigration. Instead of America conquering the world, the world conquers us.
There are agricultural jobs that machines can’t do, and there are certain kinds of crops and terrains for which machines aren’t appropriate (yet), but one benefit that the otherwise disastrous globalization of the economy may yet bring may just be the end of mass Third World immigration into this country.
With the remorseless logic of Economic Man, the agribusiness manager Mr. Porter quoted earlier in his story summed up the implications of the new interest of American farmers in technological innovation: “If there’s no demand for labor, supply will end. They will have to find another place to work, or stay in their country.”
If a commitment to nation and civilization won’t stop mass immigration, maybe economics finally can.