A particularly bizarre moment in the immigration debate came and went almost unnoticed. At the same House subcommittee hearing at which Stephen Colbert testified, Rep. Steve King (R- Iowa), who opposes legalization for the undocumented workers who plant, pick, harvest and package a substantial portion of the nation’s crops and produce, offered this alternative: Americans could simply wean themselves from fruits and vegetables. Salad, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, etc., cannot be all that important to human health, King suggested, huffing “I’m wondering how the Eskimos got along all those centuries without fruits and vegetables!”
A diet of whale blubber is certainly a novel idea, but it seems unlikely to be embraced. The reality is that Americans need to eat produce, and for that to happen, farmers need a reliable supply of skilled workers — and laborers need consistent employment and to be protected from exploitation. That’s what passing AgJOBS legislation would accomplish. The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Howard L. Berman (D- Valley Village) would create a pilot program to give certain immigrant farmworkers (some here legally, others not) the opportunity to obtain a “blue card” — a temporary work permit — and, later, the possibility of permanent legal residency. It would also provide blue cards to spouses and minor children of such farmworkers and modify the current H-2A guest-worker visa program. It is not a cure for all that ails agriculture or national immigration policy, but it is a decent compromise.
The major argument against AgJOBS is not that fruits and vegetables are unnecessary to a healthy diet, but that those jobs ought to be held by Americans rather than illegal immigrants, and that Americans would do farm work if it paid more — say, the national average of $17 an hour.
But low wages are only part of what makes farm work unattractive to many Americans. It is not only grueling but seasonal. Certain crops require constant migration. For example, lettuce grows in Yuma from November to March. Then lettuce harvesters migrate to Huron, south of Fresno, for the month of April. Then it’s on to Salinas from May through mid-October, and back to Huron through mid-November. On a good day, lettuce crews make up to $14 an hour, but that’s only if consumers don’t suddenly prefer soup to salad. If they do, wages fall. This is not the life many Americans aspire to.
Furthermore, simply raising wages (and therefore prices) on domestic produce might have worked 40 years ago as a way to encourage Americans to take those jobs. But it would be a risky gamble today. Consumers now have choices from around the world at their fingertips and cannot be compelled to purchase locally grown food. Supermarkets carry grapes and avocados from Mexico, cherries from Chile and broccoli from Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador. The United States is already a net importer of fruits and vegetable, with nearly half of all fresh fruit and two-fifths of canned fruit consumed in the U.S. coming from imports, according to the Department of Agriculture. Nor do farms have to stay north of the border. Whether the future of U.S. agriculture is to vigorously outsource farming is a debate that has yet to happen, but the trickle has started. At least 84,155 acres of production and 22,285 jobs that once were in the U.S. have moved to Mexico, according to Feinstein.
Another serious sticking point for opponents of AgJOBS — even those who favor a guest-worker program — is that the bill opens the door to permanent residency, and even a pathway to citizenship, for the illegal immigrants currently working in our fields. But we believe this component is important if the United States is to avoid having a permanent underclass, a shadow economy of undocumented workers whose fate and status are tied to the land and who can never advance.
Unfortunately, it is not likely that AgJOBS will be passed in the near future. King’s Eskimo diet musings, while laughable, are probably an accurate indicator of just how far congressional Republicans are willing to contort logic to thwart sensible immigration reform. Bring on the whale blubber.