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"There are somewhere on the order of 1.6 million farm workers who are seriously engaged in agricultural work in the U.S.," he says. "Current estimates are that certainly more than half and probably upward of more than 75 percent of those workers lack proper immigration status."
So if they're not here legally, and it's a crime to hire them, why don't the growers all get arrested? It's a question that has been answered in the courts.
The courts have ruled that if a worker shows an employer credible-looking citizenship documents, the employer breaks no law by hiring him. Regelbrugge says the foreign workers his industry hires all have expertly forged citizenship documents.
Another question: Even if it's legal, why take the risk? Agricultural businesses typically have big loans to pay and must put up with plenty of Vegas-style uncertainty in the matter of weather alone. Why would they volunteer for the additional risk of a big federal round-up of their entire workforce right at harvest time?
"That's a very good question," Regelbrugge says, "and it allows me to dispel a common misconception that farmers somehow prefer the system they have."
He says they hate the system. But farmers have to hire the people with fake IDs or go out of business. It's why they want reform.
"It's pretty much become a settled matter that foreign-born workers are going to be doing much of the agricultural work in this country. Nobody who is informed is really disputing that.
"Anti-immigrant groups will argue that if things were different, wages were higher and working conditions were different, Americans would do this work."
It's not even about money. "We can all argue about where the cheap labor line exists," he says. "But the average wage in agriculture is over 10 dollars an hour and substantially higher than the federal minimum wage. Good strawberry pickers can make 18 dollars or 20 dollars an hour."
Regelbrugge says nobody in his industry thinks hiring native-born Americans is even an option. If the supply of foreign workers dries up, American growers will get out of the fresh fruit and hand-picked produce trade entirely—a process he thinks is already under way.
"The ultimate question is not who will do the work here. It's whether the work will be done here or whether the work will leave the country."
On the other hand, some American workers who did not want to lose their jobs have lost them anyway in the onslaught of low-wage immigrant workers that began in the late 1980s. In the drywall installation trade in California, for example, academic studies have documented the erosion of wages and other benefits, and eventual collapse of the drywall installers union after contractors began hiring immigrant laborers.
But that still leaves us with the facts on the ground today, and now the American economy is deeply dependent on immigrants—not merely on immigrants in general but specifically on undocumented immigrants. A 2009 study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that undocumented workers make up 40 percent of the brick masons in this country, 37 percent of drywall installers, 28 percent of dishwashers, 27 percent of maids and 21 percent of parking lot attendants. The sheer economic shock factor in abruptly running off that large a contingent of the national workforce would be staggering.
There is also a more high-end problem. Among people pushing for reform is a contingent that says a punitive restriction-based approach to immigration will damage the country badly in high-tech and professional fields, where international competition for highly qualified immigrants is global and intense.
David Leopold, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says our immigration system is already a messy proposition for the legal immigrants whom American companies, universities and hospitals must competitively recruit.
The total number of visas available in the country in any given year, for example, is not tied to the needs of industry. Visa availability has more to do with decades-old policies aimed at re-unifying the families of immigrants who are already here, and even that system is a mess. An August 12 VVM story explained that the current system sets the same cap on visas for Mexico as for Belgium, so that families in Mexico seeking permission to join relatives here legally may wait 20 years before their cases even come up for review.
An immigrant who comes here to take a prestigious position at a company or university can wait a decade for a green card granting permanent residence, Leopold says, only to find at the last minute that he didn't win the visa lottery. He comes here, launches a career, puts down family roots, and then years later discovers he's out of luck.
"It's a very unattractive situation to come into if you are highly educated and you have skills that are marketable elsewhere," he says.
Other countries that want to recruit the same people have streamlined their systems. "Canada and Europe understand this," he says, "and they are marketing themselves to the best and the brightest that would normally come here."
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