This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Will Immigrant Reform Lead to Higher Food Prices?

Thanks to Justin Stoler for linking me to an NPR story today about the potential effect of immigration reform on migrant farm workers. As he suggested to me, there is a lot to chew on here. The basic issue is this: farmers exploit undocumented farm workers, especially in terms of low wages. Those low wages translate into lower prices for domestically-grown food than we would otherwise pay, since it highly unlikely that the farmers themselves are going to absorb the difference. Given that widely acknowledged exploitation, will legalization encourage workers to leave agriculture and find other jobs? The NPR piece is wobbly on this score, and there are several reasons for this.

The last time we had a major legalization of undocumented immigrants--under Ronald Reagan--we were still in the pre-9/11 era when there was pretty easy mobility across the U.S.-Mexico border, so people leaving agriculture for higher-paying jobs were pretty quickly replaced by new waves of undocumented workers, but ones who came and went as the demand ebbed and flowed. The post-9/11 era, in which the border really is much more secure, and in which the birth rate has dropped considerably in Mexico, does not necessarily insure that there will be a new wave of people to replace those leaving agriculture. What about guest worker programs? These tend to work only in repressive societies such as Saudi Arabia where the government really will round people up and deport them when their contract ends. Furthermore, as the story points out, guest workers are also routinely exploited, despite working legally, so we don't get rid of that issue. 

Why can't farmers just pay their workers more and then charge more for their food? The problem, as the story notes, is competition from Mexico and Central America, where farm workers are also exploited and where, in all events, wages are even lower than in the U.S. 

If you follow through the logic of this story, it seems to me that (a) legalization will lead to a high fraction of current workers leaving agriculture to find higher pay elsewhere; (b) this will change the farming industry in California where many growers are already switching to almonds because they require less labor; (c) leading to more imported food, (d) which will keep food prices low in the U.S., but will be bad for the U.S. trade deficit. In the end, though, the only real argument for immigration reform is that we simply shouldn't be exploiting undocumented immigrants as we do. There will be consequences, not all good, but we will have to adjust to that new reality.

1 comment:

  1. absolutely RIGHT. America has been exploiting undocumented workers for decades. We ALLOW them to be here where it suits us, and then we create a "hue and cry" when the issue becomes a political football. The shame is on US, not on the workers.

    It doesn't seem like it would be THAT hard for the USA to establish a guest worker program for people who want to live in Mexico and work on California farms. Do an assessment and work our HOW MANY laborers are needed. Set up a program where the people are driven on buses from Tijuana and taken directly to the farms. Make sure they have temporary accommodation that meets basic standards of hygiene. Then send the folks back home on buses when the work is done. The whole system could be put together so that it WORKED and it treated people with dignity and respect. Instead, we have allowed the immigration system to become a quagmire of bigotry, allegations and police state tactics. None of this was ever necessary. Sometimes we have to look ourselves in the eye as a society, and see how EXPLOITIVE we actually are.

    Pete, Redondo Beach, CA