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Diane Mufson: Who will pick crops if immigrants can't?

Aug. 30, 2011 @ 08:40 PM

Agriculture is a year-round, multibillion dollar industry in our country, although some seasons are busier than others. American agri-business demands that massive amount of harvesting be done at precise times. Despite farm machines and technological advances, this is labor-intensive work.

It's no secret that many of our food pickers are illegal immigrants, also known as undocumented aliens. So there is now a move to pass legislation that would require all those hired for such work to be checked by E-Verify, a program that would screen out all those who are not here legally. It sounds like a good plan, but here is the problem. Who's going to pick our crops?

The answer should be Americans will pick those crops. After all, unemployment is over 9 percent and these jobs pay as well or better than most fast-food franchises. That should solve the problem. But it won't be, for one simple reason.

Americans don't want to do that type of work. It's hard, boring and exhausting. Even under the best of conditions, you can't pick berries or corn in air-conditioning or surf the net while harvesting apples.

There is a bona fide problem and a real disconnect here. It is only right that Americans should be given the first opportunity to work at jobs in this country. And there are plenty of farm jobs available throughout different parts of the United States.

But Americans aren't flocking to the jobs. In an article by Jesse McKinley and Julia Preston in the New York Times, a Florida group checked on the hiring practices of citrus growers who must offer jobs to Americans before they seek others. In one sample, "344 Americans came forward to fill 1,800 pickers' jobs; only eight were still working at the end of the two-month season."

In Georgia, Jeremy Redmon, writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, highlighted the difficulties Georgia farmers were having after the passage of Georgia HB 87. One farmer reported that the Hispanic workers who usually harvest his vegetables didn't show up because they were afraid of the consequences of the new law.

It is no secret that most of the seasonal and back-breaking agricultural work is done by undocumented workers. It's been going on for ages and some claim that 50 to 70 percent of the picking work is not done by those with legal papers.

Interestingly, the new bill to require E-verification of farm workers is sponsored by Lamar Smith, R-Texas. Traditionally farmers have voted Republican, but this bill is not appealing to many of them. In Texas, a similar bill, reportedly supported by the Republican governor, was killed in the state legislature.

In general, Americans are fed up with illegal immigration and costs associated with it. There have been a variety of plans to "fix" our immigration problem. Considering the nation's inability to solve its debt problem rationally, it is not likely that the emotional issue of immigration reform will happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, something has to be done about the conflict of reality where crops need to be picked and a lack of home-grown labor. Americans are not likely to change their attitudes about picking crops. If they were, it would already have happened in our depressed economy.

Our immigration problems will remain, but we obviously cannot close down the entire system of crop harvesting. Our country has to come up with a rational and humane way of providing farm labor. Otherwise, we are going to be continually asking the question, "Who's going to pick our crops?"

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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