The New York Times “Room for Debate” series recently tackled illegal farm labor, with six labor policy and economic experts discussing whether “strict enforcement of immigration laws would drive up prices for fruits and vegetables.” According to the commentators, eliminating undocumented workers in the agriculture sector, if possible, would have far-reaching consequences for growers, consumers and other economic sectors. As agricultural and resource economist Michael Roberts explains, the strict enforcement of immigration laws would not only raise domestic fruit and vegetable prices and likely increase cheaper imports, but “the employment effect for citizens could be smaller than some might expect, because illegal immigrants don’t just fill jobs; they also buy stuff with the money they earn, spurring demand and creating jobs in other parts of the economy.”

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, also agreed that expelling
immigrant farm laborers would affect “whole sectors of the economy,”
since “every farm job supports three to four others up and downstream in
the local economy: from the people who sell fertilizer and farm machinery to those who work in trucking, food processing, grocery stores, and restaurants.”

And economist Karina Gallardo notes that even if immigrant workers
were successfully replaced by domestic ones, “sharply higher labor costs
in the U.S. will hurt American growers’ competitiveness” both at home and
abroad. “If production costs suddenly increased because of labor shortage or
higher wages, consumers would probably shift to similar and less expensive
imported fruit,” she writes, adding that China already “dominates” the U.S.
apple processing market.

But Lisa García Bedolla, president of the University of California, Berkeley’s
Center for Latino Policy Research, not only contends that stricter immigration
enforcement would fail to raise farm wages, but raises questions about a food
production system that “depends on the exploitation of its labor force.” In
particular, she cites economist and fellow debater Philip Martin, who calculates
that, “If farm wages rose 40 percent, each household would spend about
$15 more a year, and each seasonal farm worker would be lifted above the
federal poverty line.”

“If our lawmakers decide that American farmers should hire only American
workers, then we as a country have a lot more work to do than just enforcing
the rules against illegal labor,” concludes Hearty Roots Community Farm
manager Benjamin Shute. “We need to set a national priority to encourage a
new generation of young farmers, and we must adjust our system of agriculture
to make farms into places where Americans want to work.”

About The Author


For decades, manufacturers, distributors and retailers at every link in the food chain have come to Shook, Hardy & Bacon to partner with a legal team that understands the issues they face in today's evolving food production industry. Shook attorneys work with some of the world's largest food, beverage and agribusiness companies to establish preventative measures, conduct internal audits, develop public relations strategies, and advance tort reform initiatives.

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