What would happen if the illegal immigrants didn’t show up?
Look around and get a few hints. See Georgia, for instance, where with great fanfare the Legislature passed an immigration enforcement law that did Arizona one better. Among many provisions, such as authorizing local police to investigate and jail illegal immigrants, it makes it a crime to use fake identification to get a job, with penalties of up to 15 years in prison and $250,000 fines.
Even before the law takes effect, there are effects. In the fields especially, where Georgia farmers are grappling with a sudden and severe shortage of harvest labor. Berries, peaches and other perishables are ripe, and it appears a good share of them will be left to rot. “The labor shortage is potentially putting hundreds of millions of dollars in crops at risk,” said the Atlanta Journal Constitution, quoting state agriculture officials. Gov. Nathan Deal ordered a survey. It found 11,000 harvest workers were needed now, about 14 percent of the total workforce. This is a problem. Agriculture is Georgia’s largest industry. Its farmers would hire 81,000 workers annually and the fruits of their labor support many more jobs than that. “After enacting House Bill 87, a law designed to drive illegal immigrants out of Georgia, state officials appear shocked to discover that HB 87 is, well, driving a lot of illegal immigrants out of Georgia,” wrote Journal Constitution columnist Jay Bookman. “It might be funny if it wasn’t so sad.”
The governor suggests farmers hire out-of-work criminal probationers, as there are several thousand sitting around. Advocates for the probationers (there are always advocates) say you can’t make them take those lousy jobs. Crops will be lost.
This should give us some idea of what happens when we pursue an enforcement-only approach to immigration, without regard to the consequences. If you kick out the immigrants and leave it at that, as many want us to do, you will find out why those people were here in the first place. They came to work, inhaled by the economic vacuum to do jobs the rest of us don’t need or want. A lot of those involve harvesting the food we eat.
Blaming farmers and “big agriculture” and telling them to keep raising wages until they attract workers is excruciatingly naive. Farmers don’t set the price for their product. Higher wages have to come out of their profits, such as they are. There are limits and most farmers are probably pretty close to the edge already. Not even in America can we pay workers more than the economic value their labor produces, not for long anyway. Farms can go out of business, reduce the supply of the commodity and therefore raise the price for the survivors, who then could pay more attractive wages, at least in theory. Competition from outside the country might thwart that plan quickly, but do we really want food and labor shortages and bankruptcies as part of our long-term business model?
The economic experiment may soon go national The House is still considering a bill that would require every employer in the nation to use the federal E-Verify database, or else. The system identifies workers whose documents don’t match the legal list, and makes them unemployable. The Georgia law requires its employers to use E-Verify starting next year. The advocates of the Legal Workforce Act of 2011 say they expect it to pass, and open up millions of jobs for citizens. “Twenty-four million Americans are unemployed or have given up looking for work,” said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. “Yet according to the Pew Hispanic Center, seven million people are working in the U.S. illegally. These jobs should go to legal workers.”
Most won’t. Some of those jobs will disappear, along with their would-be employers. Which will be more evidence that immigration enforcement and closing borders without regard to the consequences will be destructive. A means to allow willing immigrants to enter the country to fill unfilled jobs, as we have always had, needs to be a priority. Legal this time, for our own sake.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Tuesday through Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.