The Corner

Economy & Business

Farming Like It’s 1699

Farm animals under a sky darkened by smoke from the Kincade Fire in Windsor, Calif., October 28, 2019. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)
It’s cheaper to invest in congressmen than in automation

The House is expected to vote Wednesday on the hilariously misnamed Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would “modernize” agricultural labor right back to the 17th century.

At the core of the bill are several indentured-labor schemes intended to tie current illegal aliens and future “temporary” workers to farm jobs for four to ten years before giving them green cards. The reason for the indenture system is that farmers know from experience that once the illegal aliens or visa workers get green cards, almost all will flee the medieval labor system that prevails in much of fresh fruit and vegetable agriculture.

Fact sheets on the bill are here and here. It provides immediate amnesty to illegal aliens (and their dependents) who have (or claim to have) worked at least part time in agriculture over the past two years. The number of beneficiaries is estimated to be at least 1.5 million.

To prevent the newly legalized illegals from running off to take construction or service jobs in town, the bill gives them a new “Certified Agricultural Worker” visa, which they need to keep for a period of time before becoming free workers. For those who’d already worked illegally in farming for at least ten years, the period of indenture would be four years; eight years for those who’d been working in farming for less than ten years. Only after putting in their time would the amnestied illegals be able to upgrade to get green cards and leave plantation labor behind. A separate ten-year period of indenture for a green card is established for legal workers on the existing (numerically unlimited) H-2A farmworker visa — that’s where future indentured will come from after today’s illegals all get their green cards and hightail it out of the fields.

The bill also mandates use of E-Verify, but only in agriculture — where it would no longer be needed, because with this kind of sweet deal, who’d bother to hire new illegals?

The bill, H.R. 5038, is co-sponsored by 28 Democrats and 25 Republicans, and was okayed by the House Judiciary Committee last month, without any hearings.

The problems with this 224-page contrivance are several. First, the amnesty.

The last time we did a farmworker amnesty, it resulted in “one of the most extensive immigration frauds ever perpetrated against the United States government” — according to the New York Times, no less. This was the “Special Agricultural Worker” portion of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (the smaller of the two main amnesties contained in that law), which legalized 1.1 million people, even though there were only about 400,000 people eligible for it. That represents a fraud rate of 64 percent. People received the “farmworker” amnesty even though they claimed, for instance, to have picked watermelons from trees. One of the beneficiaries was Mahmud “The Red” Abouhalima, an Egyptian illegal alien driving a cab in New York, who used his fraudulently acquired status to travel to Afghanistan for terrorist training, which he used in the first World Trade Center attack.

Does anyone think our government has become more conscientious since then?

Then there’s the indenture. Do we really want an entire segment of our economy to be based on the use of unfree labor? The South tried that a while back, with results not necessarily to its advantage.

But put the Peculiar Institution aside and look at post-Civil War sharecropping and tenant farming. The farm workers — white and black — had few options and were essentially tied to their jobs.

Until they weren’t. Once foreign immigration to northern cities was cut off, sharecroppers and tenant farmers started heading north, leaving farm owners at a loss. Who would pick the cotton? Rotting In The Fields, and all that.

This is where the third problem with the Farm Workforce Modernization Act comes in. It actually slows the modernization of farming. When the cotton farmers started seeing their once-captive workforce flee, and didn’t have any established way of importing new serfs, they invested in research and development to automate the harvest. Now no human hand touches a boll of cotton as it is harvested and processed.

So long as American agri-business can rely on a continually replenished supply for foreign labor, it has little incentive to invest in automation. Neil Munro over at Breitbart juxtaposed of a series of tweets by the United Farmworkers, showing hard-working farm laborers, with machines (mostly developed abroad) that doing the same jobs immeasurably faster. Perhaps most striking was a UFW tweet showing a woman, literally kneeling in the dirt, picking radishes with remarkable speed and dexterity, contrasted with a Japanese radish-harvesting machine that was orders of magnitude more productive.

House members will decide this week which of these approaches will they incentivize — high-productivity, modern mechanized agriculture, or the continuation of a system to, as Munro writes, “harvest the crops with methods that have changed little in 10,000 years.”

So long as it’s cheaper to invest in congressmen than in automation, the use of stoop labor will persist.

Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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