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

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.”

Colbert points to one of the major reasons Americans don’t want these jobs. It’s backbreaking work, often in triple-digit heat. After one day in the fields, he did not suffer any injuries. But many farmworker tasks are repetitive, strenuous and must be done quickly – a recipe for injuries. In her garlic job, McMillan asked around to find out what others did for tendinitis. Her coworkers, nearly all undocumented immigrants from Mexico, recommended over-the-counter remedies like Ben-Gay and Tylenol. She tried these, to little effect. Most of the other workers simply took a day off if they faced health problems. Most did not complain because they feared losing their jobs. It’s the “definition of privilege,” she realized, that she could quit the job and go do something else after hurting her arm.

Another issue is the job’s low pay. By law, McMillan was to earn minimum wage in each job she tried. But she did not. As noted above, she earned minimum wage for sorting peaches, although she was warned to carefully check her paycheck to make sure she was not cheated out of her wages. Wage theft is a problem many farmworkers face. Her grape job did not even pretend to pay minimum wage; she earned $27 for working nine hours. However, in her garlic job, the farm had a “very codified method of cheating workers out of minimum wage,” while making it appear that the workers had received minimum wage.

As is common for farmworkers, the garlic cutters were paid piece-rate: they received a set amount ($1.60) for each bucket of garlic they brought from the fields. To earn minimum wage, one must pick five buckets of garlic per hour. At her best, McMillan picked three per hour, and she did not see anyone do better than four. “I did think it was interesting that nobody I worked with could pick at a rate that was even minimum wage,” she said.

The farm tracked the hour each worker arrived and left, as well as how many buckets of garlic they picked. If McMillan was there for eight and a half hours and picked 25 buckets of garlic, her “field card” would reflect that. But her paycheck would only pay her the $40 she earned for her 25 buckets and it would say that she had only worked five hours in order to give the appearance she was earning minimum wage. The only way the government would know workers were being cheated out of minimum wage would be to check their field cards.

The illegally low wages are well hidden. “I've talked to at least a dozen or more growers and…every single farmer tells you nobody would ever cheat like that,” recalls McMillan. They tell her “you would get in trouble so quickly,” and “maybe there are a few bad apples." In fact, they say the “fields are over-policed” and call farming “the most regulated industry.” She suspects that the growers receive records that make it look like the workers are getting paid minimum wage, and “it looks like it is humanly possible to pick five buckets of garlic in an hour.”

Asking an American citizen to do this work is not simply asking them to work hard for minimum wage. It is asking them to submit to exploitation they should be protected against by law. By turning to undocumented workers who fear deportation or jail and who may not speak English or possess more than a few years of formal education, the industry uses a workforce vulnerable enough to do the work without complaining.

As a solution, Colbert suggested, “Maybe we could offer more visas to the immigrants who, let’s face it, are likely to be doing these jobs anyway.” If the workers are in the U.S. legally, perhaps they would feel secure enough to complain about exploitative conditions.

McMillan feels that “the way you get people to do [farm work] is you pay them a decent enough wage so that they are willing to put up with it.” If they were paid $15 or $20 per hour, she thinks high school kids might be willing to work on farms for a few months. Because farmworker wages make up a very small percent of the retail price of food, she doesn’t think increasing farmworker wages would result in a catastrophic increase in food prices. Perhaps the shortage of immigrant farmworkers gives the U.S. an opportunity to bring justice to an industry that has been unjust since the era of slavery. 

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