Paying more for your salsa, will broken immigration system = higher food prices?

Original article appeared on May 30, 2011, in my column on

Wait for it… California could be next. In Georgia, farmers are reporting that “they are starting to feel the effects of a tough crackdown on illegal immigration” — a sudden dearth of migrant workers needed to bring in their harvests. Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said the labor pool of produce pickers has shrunk by 30 to 50 percent since passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act on April 20, 2011″ according to a Yahoo News report this past Saturday. One owner,  Melinda James, of OSAGE Farms in north Georgia says she only has 26-28 lined up of the “about 150 workers [we need] when we get going in June”.

With ICE (Immigration Control and Enforcement) raids, and crackdowns on employers of illegal workers both on the rise; add the fact that California’s illegal immigrant population has dropped by by 250,000, the nation’s by nearly 1 million, as reported in February 2011 in the LA Times. Much of the drop, the sharpest in three decades, is due to a weakened US economy, which means workers are returning to their homelands (primarly Mexico) or simply not coming.  It all adds up to potential endangered crops, something we saw hints of as early as 2007, when Luawanna Hallstrom of the California Farm Bureau likened the situation to, “a time bomb just ready to go off.”

Nationally, it has been estimated more than half of all farm workers are illegal immigrants. In California, that numer is closer to 75%. The California Department of of Food and Agriculture has called for a sweeping effort to protect immigrant farm workers — including those who traveled to the U.S. illegally — in a plan called AgVision2030, asserting that immigrant labor is vital to the state’s farm economy, which affirms a commonly held view among immigrant-rights advocates — that migrant laborers, many of them from Mexico, do jobs that U.S. citizens are unwilling to do.

“Coordinated efforts at recruiting domestic labor have largely failed, despite high unemployment in many agricultural communities,” the plan states. “Thus, an estimated 75 percent of California’s agricultural workforce is foreign-born, primarily Mexican, and about half of the workers are believed to be unauthorized under current immigration laws.” The plan goes on to state that the current visa system for farm workers is “cumbersome and ineffective.”

Angela Chan, a staff lawyer at the Asian Law Caucus, said in an email message. “We cannot continue to ignore this basic truth that immigrant workers are vital to our economy,” and farmers confirm a shortage of workers means food gets left to rot. Farms must simply leave fruit on the vine and fields unharvested.Screen shot 2013-07-30 at 11.13.36 AM

UPDATE to original piece- New government study highlights relationship between immigration reform and food supply in the US:

From LatinaLista — In the ongoing campaign by the White House to pressure Congress to pass immigration reform, every executive branch department head has come out to make a speech, from their particular department perspective, as to why resolving our immigration policy would be good for the country.

To be honest, when listening to Arne Duncan or Janet Napolitano Attorney General Eric Holder or almost any of the other department secretaries make the case for immigration reform, their voices don’t necessarily resonate with average Americans, especially those Americans who don’t have kids in school, live in a border state, are of a mixed-status family, worry about gang crime or just think they live in an insulated bubble where undocumented immigrants don’t exist in their world — if they only knew.

But there is one department secretary whose voice should resonate loudly with Americans, for a single reason — his department is responsible for overseeing our food supply.

Today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack presented to the media a new report,Fixing Our Broken Immigration System: The Economic Benefits to Agriculture and Rural Communities.

The argument automatically evoked to justify immigration reform has always been that “undocumented immigrants do the jobs Americans won’t do.” These days, in most industries, that argument rings hollow. The more desperate for a job the more inclined are some Americans to work in the hospitality industry, cleaning offices, stand in assembly lines, etc.

But there is one industry, regardless of the economy, that Americans will not apply — and if they do, they don’t last long — agriculture. According to the new report:

…there continue to be insufficient U.S. workers to fill labor needs: of those crop workers surveyed between 2007 and 2009, 71 percent were foreign born.

Not reforming our current immigration policy doesn’t just put our agricultural workforce at risk but the affordability of our food.

Already, the drought has taken a toll on our food supply.

The drought affected prices for corn and soybeans as well as other field crops which, in turn, drove up retail food prices in the final quarter of 2012 and the first half of 2013

Couple Mother Nature’s mood swings with farmers who do have a respectable crop but no laborers to do the picking, packing or harvesting and that spells trouble for the American consumer who can look forward to shortages of foods and higher grocery prices due to getting certain fruits, vegetables, etc. shipped from overseas to make up for our shortages.

There’s nothing that can be done to thwart nature but at least with passage of an immigration bill — one that prevents the exploitation of immigrant workers and pays fair wages and provides benefits — Americans are ensured of having an affordable and continuous domestic food supply that will keep pace with the nation’s growing and hungry population.

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