Politics & Policy

The Specter of the $20 Avocado

Corn farmer Dan Roberts inspects his crops in Minooka, Ill., 2014. (Reuters photo: Jim Young)
No, enforcing immigration law won’t ruin farming.

The response to my recent column on how to go about enforcing U.S. immigration law — which is somewhat different from the current debate focused on how to go about not enforcing it — provides a useful opportunity to dispel some myths about illegal immigrants and agriculture.

To begin with the biggest big picture: It is a myth that American agriculture is dominated by illegal-immigrant labor, and that enforcing U.S. labor laws would either shut down farms around the country, as the most hysterical critics claim, or result in wildly higher food prices. The evidence does not support this position or anything close to that position.

Most illegals do not work in agriculture — only about 4 percent of the illegal-immigrant population is employed in farming. In no state is farming the predominant occupation of illegal immigrants; even in places such as California, where labor-intensive fruit-and-vegetable farming attracts a relatively large illegal workforce, the main occupations of illegals are in hospitality (restaurants and hotels), services, and transportation.

Likewise, most of the people working in agriculture are not illegals: The great majority of the farming workforce is composed of legal workers, with illegals constituting about one-fourth of the total. Illegals make up a larger share of the farm workforce than they do any other labor pool, but they remain a small though not inconsequential minority of workers.

To the extent that illegals do predominate in certain crop economies, those constitute a relatively small part of the U.S. farm economy. The big crops that economically dominate U.S. agriculture — wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans, alfalfa/hay, sorghum, etc. — account for the greatest part of agricultural output and are, not coincidentally, largely automated. Tiny labor forces, often one or two operators, use high-tech modern combines to harvest vast fields of cotton, wheat, corn, and soybeans. That work is highly paid, and, if there are illegals involved, they likely are washing those farmers’ $60,000 trucks or the landowners’ Mercedes. There are not very many poorly educated and low-skilled economic refugees from Latin America operating cutting-edge farm implements that cost the better part of a million bucks a piece. (And don’t be surprised if, within a few years, nobody is operating those machines: The age of the autonomous tractor is upon us.)

RELATED: Setting the Foundation for a Real Immigration Debate 

Some crops still require a great deal of manual labor, but few of those crops are anywhere near as economically significant as animal-feed crops (the economic footprint of which is larger than that of grains meant for human consumption) or corn. The only ones that you’ll find among the top 20 crops most years are lettuce, tomatoes, grapes, apples, and oranges. It is not that we do not care about relatively small, labor-intensive crops such as cherries, avocados, or peppers; it’s that they are not very big pieces of the farm economy.

But what about those avocados?

A while back, I had some fun with the famous economist Eva Longoria, who claimed that if the United States were to begin enforcing immigration law, then consumers would — brace yourselves! — end up paying, as she ran the numbers, $17 for valet parking or $8 for a head of broccoli. Well: Valet parking is $23 at McCarran International Airport and worth every penny, $22 at the Mall of America, and $39 at the Mandarin Oriental in Miami — bring on la migra! The broccoli at Whole Foods hasn’t hit $8 a head yet, though, if it did, life would go on.

#share#But: It won’t. Not as a result of enforcing immigration law, anyway. Applying here the usual caveats that should accompany such studies, an estimate from Iowa State scholars concluded that entirely eliminating the illegal workforce would raise farm wages substantially — by 30 percent in the short term and 15 percent in the long term — but would raise prices only a tiny amount, from 6 percent in the near term to about 3 percent in the long term.

The reason for that is obvious: Labor is a relatively small part of the cost of food, only about 7 percent for labor-intensive crops such as apples and a good deal less than that for others. There is not much reason to be worried about food prices — especially considering the decades-long downward trend in grocery costs for American families — but if you were worried about that, you’d want to pay attention to more expensive inputs, such as the costs of diesel and other fuels (not only for transportation: many irrigation systems are powered by natural gas), taxes and transportation fees, barriers to imports, etc.

RELATED: The Only Immigration Solution

Farm wages may go up if we enforce immigration laws. One never knows until the market actually is given a chance to function, but it would be surprising if they failed to rise, and rise significantly. So, what? Sometimes wages go up, sometimes they go down. If you want to champion the case against allowing the free market to dictate higher pay for low-income workers, be my guest. But I don’t think you’ll get far.

Policing illegal immigration is not going to stop Americans from farming.

Others protest: “But farmers won’t be able to fill those jobs at all! These are hard, dirty, sweaty, back-breaking jobs that” — here, toll the bells of cliché — “Americans just won’t do!” There is not much evidence that this is true. Americans already do three out of four farm jobs, and if there were no illegals doing the others, they might very well do those, too — but probably not at the wages that have prevailed among illegal workers. Again: So, what? Some of my dearest friends are criminals, but if your business model is such that you cannot turn a profit without violating federal law — and not some obscure, rococo EPA regulation but just regular old immigration law — then my heart does not bleed for you.

And it’s a libel that Americans are unwilling to work hard for a living. Americans will work in coal mines, but not for eight bucks an hour. Our friends at the National Mining Association report that the average wage of an employee of a Kentucky coal mine is $72,779 a year. Good for them. When was the last time you skipped dinner out because you were concerned about the impact of coal prices on the family budget?

The farmers aren’t much worried about that sort of thing, either. Despite their carrying on as though the Great Depression never ended and American agriculture is run by a bunch of feckless and hapless Joads, the fact is that farmers have substantially higher incomes than the median American family and much, much more wealth. They can probably afford to pay non-felonious market prices for labor. And, if they can’t, somebody else can. Farming isn’t Green Acres; it’s big business: Fewer than 10 percent of U.S. farms account for more than 80 percent of the dollar value of U.S. agricultural output. That’s agribusiness — most everybody else is a hobbyist.

#related#Policing illegal immigration is not going to stop Americans from farming — from engaging in one of the oldest forms of organized economic activity known to the human race. It isn’t going to cause a wild spike in prices. It might make it harder to get a taxi in Philadelphia or more expensive to find a dishwasher in Boston or a lawn-keeper in Omaha. It isn’t going to add $4 to the cost of a head of lettuce, though it might add $4 to your hotel bills. It might mean — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — that Caitlyn and Tanner out there in suburbia have to wash the Buick or mow the grass.

There are many good arguments for taking a more liberal approach to immigration than we do. But there isn’t a good argument for maintaining a restrictive immigration system on paper while maintaining lawlessness in practice because we’re terrified of sparking a . . . national cantaloupe crisis.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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