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Deporting the Hand That Feeds Us: How Anti-Immigrant Laws Are Causing a Farm Labor Shortage

If Americans won't do the work, and the U.S. successfully keeps undocumented immigrants out of the country, then who will do it?

Photo Credit: mikeledray/


While researching her 2012 book The American Way of Eating, journalist Tracie McMillan decided to try her hand at picking grapes, sorting peaches and cutting garlic. The experience resulted in heatstroke, tendinitis and long-term damage to her right arm. In only one job – sorting peaches – was she paid minimum wage. That was also the only job where her employer was aware she was an undercover journalist. She left two jobs rather quickly, but stuck with the garlic job for six weeks until she literally could not use her right arm for anything and she became worried she might permanently damage it.

The harsh conditions and poor pay for farmwork are nothing new in American history. Before Mexicans worked on America’s large farms, the U.S. used a different group of immigrants: slaves from Africa and their descendants.

In 1964, the U.S. government made a feeble attempt to replace immigrant farmworkers with U.S. citizens by paying them a guaranteed hourly rate of $2 per hour or $.32 per crate of oranges, whichever was higher. That year, Dave Secor decided to give picking oranges a try, but he lasted only a few days.

“I remember one day, I picked 23 boxes of oranges and I was beat to death, but I thought I did very well,” he recalls. But then he overheard a Mexican man nearby say he had picked 56 boxes. Secor was in great shape at the time, but he called the work “physically impossible.” “You cannot imagine the difficulty of that kind of work. Anybody who can last even a week to me is the equivalent of an Olympian, and these people did this every day, every week, every month throughout their lives.”

McMillan echoes his sentiments, making it clear that the work has become no easier in the intervening decades. In her garlic job, she would scour fields for already harvested garlic, gathering it into bunches and then snipping off the roots and stalks. But the effort required to close the scissors on the garlic took her entire arm and shoulder. It wasn’t just difficult to do the job and do it quickly – it was simply impossible to do it at the speed required to earn a living and it was impossible to do it for any length of time without suffering injuries.

But if Americans won’t do the work, and the U.S. successfully keeps undocumented immigrants out of the country, then who will do it? Last year, Alabama and Georgia passed some of the nation’s toughest anti-immigrant laws and then faced problems because the crops could not pick themselves. Georgia attempted to replace undocumented workers with prison labor, a tactic it is trying again, but it wasn’t a perfect fix and $140 million in Georgia crops simply rotted in the fields.

This year, South Carolina passed an anti-immigrant law that exempted farmworkers. But it appears that difficulty finding enough farmworkers is not limited to states with recently passed anti-immigrant legislation. Now Washington and California report shortages as well. In addition to the anti-immigrant environment in the U.S., Mexico’s drug war has made the trip over the border more dangerous – and expensive. As a result, fewer Mexicans are willing to risk it.

Americans sometimes complain that undocumented workers are “taking our jobs.” Riffing on this, the “ Take Our Jobs” campaign intended to educate Americans about the conditions farmworkers face and called on U.S. citizens to take the farm labor jobs back from undocumented workers. One of the 16 who did was comedian Stephen Colbert, who then testified to Congress about his experience. He told Congress, “Please don’t make me do this again. It is really, really hard… At this point, I break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar.”

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