I keep hearing that the reason that we need workers from Mexico and Central America to pick our crops is because working in the fields is “work that Americans won’t do”. I say that that sentence is chopped off in midstream.
How do I know that’s only half a sentence? Because that was the first work I ever did. I worked summers all through high school. My first job was in 1961, when I was 13 years old and weighed about 120 pounds (55 kg) soaking wet.
I just looked it up, and at the time, the Federal minimum wage in current dollars was $8.12 per hour. The California minimum wage was $9.34 per hour. Interesting, not a lot different from today.
In current money, on my first job I made two dollars and forty-four cents an hour. I worked ten hours a day, bucking hay in the fields. It was totally illegal for me to be doing the work for several reasons. First, I was too young to be working at all. Then I wasn’t being paid overtime for over eight hours per day. Plus I wasn’t making minimum wage. I thought then, and still think, that those laws were asinine. I was overjoyed to have a job. I said screw the laws, and I took every penny I earned home and gave it to my single mother.
“Bucking hay” back in the day meant walking alongside the trailer all day in the boiling sun, picking bales of hay up from the ground and tossing them on to the trailer. Back breaking, exhausting work.
That was where I learned that the first rule of work, expressed in todays parlance, is “Suck it up, buttercup”. My mom cared when I complained to her about how hard the work was. The men I worked with were totally uninterested in my complaints, excuses, or any kind of whining about how tough life is. There was a job to do, we had to do it, I was helping support my mom and my brothers, and that was it. Suck it up, go to work.
The farmers’ fields of America don’t just produce vegetables. They also produce a work ethic second to none.
And that is why I said above that the sentence was chopped off in midstream.
I don’t agree that “There is work that Americans won’t do.”
I do think that “There is a lot of work that Americans won’t do for Mexican wages.”
I can guarantee that if you pay a commensurate wage, you’ll find lots of Americans willing to work at any job you can name. Flagpole-sitting? Sure, if you’ll pay enough. It’s why I endured the rigors of commercial fishing in the Bering Sea … the outrageous pay made the long hours, incessant danger, harsh conditions, bitter cold, lack of sleep, and back-breaking labor all worthwhile.
If you pay for it … they will come.
So let’s do a cost-benefit analysis of using Mexican workers to pick our vegetables.
The benefits are obvious—cheap beans, inexpensive tomatoes, low-priced carrots. That part’s easy.
Now let’s discuss the costs. As a first cut, let’s assume that the workers are Mexicans brought in seasonally and legally to work in the fields, as they were under the “bracero” program when I was a kid.
(Yes, I understand, not all of them were Mexican, but I’ll use the term for simplicity as representative of the overwhelming majority of the braceros. So please don’t bust me or make the laughable claim that I don’t like Mexicans. I have great Mexican relatives and in-laws. Mexicans are as good or bad as any other group … now, back to the question.)
Let’s first investigate the hidden costs of using legal foreign workers.
The first cost of legal foreign workers, of course, is the loss of jobs. If we have a million Mexican seasonal workers in the farmers’ fields, that’s a million Americans who have to find work elsewhere.
Not only that, but those jobs are the kind which are in increasingly short supply in the US—low or medium skilled rural jobs. These “entry-level” jobs are hugely important, because they allow young people to enter the job market and they provide work in rural areas where employment is short.
This job loss hits the hardest, sadly, at those people who worked in our farmers’ fields before we imported foreign workers, legal or illegal. Back in the day, black Americans were greatly over-represented in that group. Think about the vegetable fields and factories all across the South … so not only do foreign workers cost us jobs, they cost us jobs traditionally held by black people. This is a price that African-Americans can ill afford to pay.
This giant loss of precious unskilled and medium-skilled rural jobs should be enough by itself to totally discredit the idea of even legal foreign workers. Why on earth would we want to lose those jobs to anyone, legal or otherwise? Why would we want to throw large numbers of black people out of work? It’s nuts.
It gets worse. If we pay Americans to pick our vegetables, those wages stay in the US. The dollars circulate in the towns and villages where the vegetables are picked, or they go back to other US cities or towns in the pockets of Americans working seasonally in the fields.
But when we pay Mexicans to do the same work, understandably and commendably they wire or carry much of that money back to their needy families in Mexico. I can’t fault them for that, it’s what I’d do in their place. It is a measure of their devotion to their families, and that is a good thing.
But the other side is, those remittance payments to Mexico are a constant, year-after-year draining away of our national wealth. Nor is it a trivial amount of money.
As a comparison, thanks to the horrible NAFTA deal, our obscene trade deficit with Mexico is terribly out of control at about sixty BILLION dollars per year. It’s a massive ongoing wealth drain, but one that the President has vowed to cut down.
To that huge annual loss, however, we have to add the remittance payments. Recorded remittances to Mexico were about twenty-six BILLION dollars in 2014, but to that we have to add undeclared money carried across the border. In total, remittances are on the order of thirty BILLION dollars that we’re losing every year, half the size of our trade deficit.
(As a side note, the proposed border wall is supposed to cost on the order of fifteen billion dollars. The wealth permanently lost to remittances is enough to build two border fences every single year for the foreseeable future … slap a 5% tax on Mexican remittances and you’ve paid for the Wall in a decade … but I digress.)
So using Mexican workers in our fields represents an ongoing cost of billions and billions of dollars of our national wealth leaving the country forever.
That is madness. Total madness. And very, very expensive madness.
The final cost of hiring legal Mexican seasonal laborers is that working in the fields is good for the American spirit. It builds that curious frame of mind known as the “work ethic”. At the end of a day working in the fields, I’d know that I’d earned my money. It left me feeling strong, and it gave me a sense of the value of honest toil. World War II was largely won by American farm boys accustomed to long hours and hard work … but today, we’ve mostly swapped them out for Mexicans, and lost greatly in the deal.
When I was 65, I needed to make a workshop for myself so I could start my next building project. The only place that was available was under our house, but there was nothing like headroom down there. So I decided to dig it out, excavate the ground and make a hobbit-shop for my next building project.
My gorgeous ex-fiancée said we should just do what folks around here do when they need manual labor done, and what I’ve done many times myself in the past. She said I should hire what folks around here call an “illegal”, meaning a Mexican illegal alien, to do the pick and shovel work.
She laughed when I told her why I had elected myself to do the backbreaking work of digging, often crouched over in tight spaces, under the house.
What I said to her was, “Why should Mexicans have all the fun?”
And I proceeded to spend several months with my big pick and my small pick and my repeatedly sharpened shovel and my McCloud and my dirt sled, having fun playing badger and digging out tons of earth until I had room for my table saw and my workbench and tools …
I ascribe that joy in part to learning to work outside in the fields, with my hands and my back, in the sun and in the rain … and I wouldn’t trade that for all the cheap vegetables in the world.
So those are the costs of legal Mexican seasonal workers—millions of precious jobs lost, billions and billions of dollars lost overseas every year, and a nationwide loss of our work ethic.
I’m sorry, but cheap carrots don’t even begin to make up for those gigantic losses … and that is with legal workers.
When the workers are illegal, it only gets worse. We get all of those gigantic losses listed above, losses of jobs and money and work ethic, PLUS violence and coyotes preying on the migrants and drug cartels killing people and families ripped apart and people feasting on our generous welfare system and …
It is clear that bringing in foreign workers is a very bad idea, whether they are legal or illegal!. This includes the mostly Asian workers here on “H-1B” visas that the tech companies use to avoid paying decent wages to their employees. Oh, the tech giants like Apple and Google claim, just like the farmers, that “this is work that Americans won’t do”… but of course, just like with the farmers, that’s only half a sentence.
They mean that regarding H-1B workers, this is work that Americans won’t do for Pakistani or Indian or Chinese wages.
We need to attack this problem from both ends, the employers as well as the workers. On the workers end, build the Wall. Start the process of repatriating those people who are criminals as well as being illegal aliens. Ignore the whimpering of the ultra-rich tech elite and stop the H-1B visa program, it’s just making them richer and the American workers poorer. In short, stop the endless loss of jobs, money, and work ethic.
On the other end, that of the employers, crack down on those farms and businesses that hire illegal workers. Strengthen the eVerify system so that employers can easily check the work status of potential employees, and once that is in place, start systematically weeding out the employers who are breaking the law.
Here’s the key to understanding all of this. I close the windows and lock the doors of my house at night, not because I hate the people outside, but because I love the people inside.
By the same token, I advocate sending illegal foreign workers home, not because I hate the people outside the country, but because I want to support the people inside the country. It’s not xenophobia … it’s self-protection.
My best to everyone, legal or illegal, working or not working … even at its worst it is an astounding universe.
PS: Can we stop the endless whining about illegal alien families getting split up and the poor innocent children who suffer as a result?
When AMERICAN criminals are caught, their families are split up and innocent children suffer.
When ILLEGAL ALIEN criminals are caught, their families are split up and innocent children suffer.
I don’t like that happening to kids, nobody does, but cry me a river. That’s what happens to criminals of all stripes. While it is assuredly a human tragedy … so what? Do you advocate letting American rapists and gang members out of jail because they are split up and separated from their families?
And if not … why should we be concerned when the same thing happens to foreign criminals?
The ugly truth that many people don’t want to accept is that the criminal parents are the cause of their children’s pain. The cause is not me. Not you. Not our immigration laws or the justice system. The criminal parents are the reason their children are suffering, and while we should have compassion for the kids … it’s still the parents’ fault, not anyone else’s.
PPS: My usual request. If you comment please QUOTE THE EXACT WORDS YOU ARE DISCUSSING so we can all understand your subject.