Is illegal immigration the problem or is farming the problem?

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My neighbor Nathan Thornburgh (we share an office wall here at Time) has a fascinating article about guest worker programs in North Carolina in the current issue of the magazine that ends on this decidedly subversive note:

So what’s the solution? One clue can be found in the failed amnesty of 1986, widely viewed as the genesis of the current crisis. The moment newly legalized farmworkers realized they had better options, they left for the cities instead of staying in low-paying agriculture jobs. Their exodus from the fields opened the door to an even larger wave of illegal immigration. And that raises the question, Will American agriculture ever pay enough to attract American citizens rather than just illegals? If it did, the newly legalized millions who are currently working in the fields might be inclined to stay there. But paying living wages for farmwork would, of course, require the rest of us to pay a lot more for food, become much more protectionist or both. If the country isn’t ready to take those steps, here’s an apostasy being whispered by some economists: get rid of large-scale agriculture altogether. England did it and is content to buy the bulk of its food from foreign producers. Less food security, perhaps, but also less need for guest workers. It’s a difficult discussion in the U.S., a country that has become addicted to cheap labor. But one thing is certain in North Carolina: the immigration solution of the future isn’t even working today.

One economist in particular that Nathan is talking about is Christian Dustmann at University College London, who has written a ton about immigration and the problems with guest worker programs.

Anyway, I find this suggestion fascinating. Whenever farmers tell stories about crops rotting in the fields for lack of workers to pick them, the standard view of the enlightened American is to say, ‘Man, we can’t do without immigrants, legal or otherwise.’ Perhaps we ought to instead be at least asking of farmers, ‘Why are you planting crops that you can’t make money on unless you hire illegal immigrants to pick them?’

The crops in question are large-scale plantings of fruits and vegetables, plus a few other hands-on plants like tobacco. The growing of cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans is mostly mechanized, and I’m pretty sure small-scale farmers like the ones that supply my local Greenmarket aren’t all that dependent on illegal labor either. The tradeoff here is that all that cheap supermarket lettuce and strawberries and tomatoes, which now comes mostly from California and Florida, would increasingly be grown in Mexico and elsewhere beyond our borders. But it’s not as if those crops are generating a lot of great jobs in the U.S. right now, are they?

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