Re­port: Farms ad­just­ing to life with­out im­mi­grant la­bor

Dire warn­ings from ad­vo­cates have not come to pass

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Farm­ers ad­dicted to cheap il­le­gal im­mi­grant la­bor are fac­ing dis­rup­tions, but not dev­as­ta­tion, as they ad­just to world with fewer unau­tho­rized work­ers, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port Thurs­day.

The Mi­gra­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute found that farms are plug­ging gaps by us­ing ma­chines, en­tic­ing work­ers to stay by of­fer­ing health care — and are even tap­ping le­gal guest work­ers to fill empty jobs.

Its anal­y­sis said warn­ings from im­mi­grant-rights ad­vo­cates of food short­ages have not gen­er­ally come to pass. The agri­cul­ture in­dus­try, it says, has seen an up­heaval as farm­ers shift strate­gies to try to deal with the evolv­ing la­bor force.

Mech­a­niza­tion — ei­ther as a re­place­ment or as as­sis­tance to cur­rent work­ers — is grow­ing, as is bet­ter treat­ment of mi­grants in the hopes that they’ll stick around. In­deed, the days of field work­ers rang­ing from farm to farm with each sea­sonal crop are over, and farms are mak­ing a push to keep their work­force sta­ble and in place through bet­ter con­di­tions and bonuses.

“In re­sponse to the dwin­dling ar­rival of new­com­ers from Mex­ico, farm em­ploy­ers are in­creas­ingly pur­su­ing four strate­gies to meet their la­bor needs: sat­isfy, stretch, sub­sti­tute and sup­ple­ment,” Philip Mar­tin, an agri­cul­ture pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, said in the re­port.

The farm in­dus­try could be the tip of the ice­berg as Pres­i­dent Trump pro­poses big­ger changes to le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, sug­gest­ing fu­ture flows be cut in half by trim­ming fam­ily-based mi­gra­tion and im­pos­ing a new point sys­tem to bet­ter se­lect those who earn work-based green cards.

That pro­posal has sparked fierce push­back from im­mi­grant-rights groups who say the U.S. econ­omy needs to have a steady stream of new­com­ers if it’s to grow as fast as pro­jected, and who ar­gue Amer­i­can work­ers won’t suf­fer from the com­pe­ti­tion.

The Na­tional Im­mi­gra­tion Fo­rum and Na­tional Foun­da­tion for Amer­i­can Pol­icy re­leased a re­port Thurs­day say­ing the new pro­posal, en­shrined in a bill known as the RAISE Act, would de­liver leave the econ­omy grow­ing at 88 per­cent of what it would oth­er­wise.

A ma­jor tar­get of im­mi­gra­tion groups is the RAISE Act’s point sys­tem, which would re­ward would-be im­mi­grants who can al­ready show pro­fi­ciency in English, who bring skills the gov­ern­ment deems im­por­tant, and who can prove fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence and won’t re­quire gov­ern­ment hand­outs.

Point sys­tems are used in other in­dus­tri­al­ized economies such as Canada or Aus­tralia, but Stu­art An­der­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the NFAP, said it won’t trans­late to the U.S. be­cause the Amer­i­can sys­tem — split be­tween Congress and a pres­i­dent — can’t ad­just quickly enough to eco­nomic changes.

Mr. An­der­son also said new im­mi­grants to­day al­ready have ris­ing ed­u­ca­tion lev­els.

“Both im­mi­grants and their chil­dren are now more likely to grad­u­ate col­lege than na­tive born,” he said.

That’s true, said Steven A. Ca­marota, re­search di­rec­tor at the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies, which ad­vo­cates for stricter im­mi­gra­tion lim­its, but it doesn’t mean those im­mi­grants are do­ing bet­ter. When mea­sured by in­comes, poverty rates, wel­fare use and other ba­sic yard­sticks, im­mi­grants still lag be­hind, de­spite bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion.

“It doesn’t make any dif­fer­ence,” said Mr. Ca­marota. “For what­ever rea­son, they just aren’t do­ing any bet­ter.”

He said the fail­ure of higher ed­u­ca­tion rates to im­prove the lot of im­mi­grants could ac­tu­ally be seen as a rea­son to em­brace the RAISE Act, be­cause it would se­lect for spe­cific skills.

One area of the econ­omy where changes are al­ready un­der­way is agri­cul­ture, where mi­grants — and il­le­gal im­mi­grants in par­tic­u­lar — have pro­vided the back­bone of the work­force.

Yet a sig­nif­i­cant drop in the rate of new il­le­gal im­mi­grants — from 55 per­cent in 2000 to 47 per­cent in 2014 — has forced ad­just­ments, the Mi­gra­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute said.

“As a re­sult, the hired farm work­force is ag­ing and set­tling into life in the United States, where many work­ers now live with fam­i­lies that in­clude U.S.-born chil­dren,” wrote Mr. Mar­tin, the MPI re­port au­thor. Farm­ers’ adap­ta­tion strate­gies vary. Some farm­ers are work­ing to keep crop pick­ers happy and in place by im­prov­ing work con­di­tions and in some cases of­fer­ing bonuses or even health care.

Mak­ing work­ers more ef­fi­cient — and keep­ing them health­ier, and thus able to work at an older age — means in­vest­ing in hy­draulic lifts in­stead of lad­ders, and con­veyor belts to move pro­duce so work­ers don’t have to schlep bags and crates.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Mi­gra­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute found that farms are plug­ging gaps by us­ing ma­chines and en­tic­ing work­ers with health care.

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