Fred Wilkinson, Managing Editor
Fred Wilkinson, Managing Editor

The produce industry’s reliance on immigrant labor makes it a reluctant participant in one of the country’s most contentious political controversies — illegal immigration.

From E-Verify to state laws in Georgia, Alabama and elsewhere targeting illegal immigrants and those who employ them, a workable political solution to this social and economic issue has proved elusive.

It’s unrealistic to expect anything approaching a commonsense solution that recognizes the need for legal foreign guest workers to be crafted in this election year.

Even as Congress works on the latest farm bill, an AgJobs-type program’s inclusion is a remote hope.

Recent media reports played up the finding that for the first time in decades there is now a net negative migration rate from Mexico to the U.S.

Slightly more than half (51%) of current Mexican immigrants to the U.S. are unauthorized, while 58% of the estimated 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants residing in the U.S. hail from our southern neighbor, according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center study.

About 1.2 million of the 2.5 million workers employed for wages on U.S. farms are undocumented, with the share of undocumented workers highest in seasonal fruit and vegetable crops, according to University of California-Davis economist Phillip Martin.

Like fruit and vegetable growers and packers, cattle ranches and dairy operations have become increasingly staffed by foreign-born workers as the demographics of rural areas skew ever older, and most people born there move away for careers outside agriculture.

Anti-immigration hardliners maintain that, with high unemployment, the U.S. shouldn’t have to rely on immigrant labor.

That’s a seemingly attractive yet bogus sentiment that ignores the reality that there are, in fact, some jobs that native-born Americans are stubbornly unwilling to do, even for the decent wages experienced field workers can earn.

Some argue that the social safety net is too much like a hammock, allowing potential U.S.-born workers the luxury of saying no to jobs in agriculture.

Whatever one’s politics, the hot, dirty and even dangerous “Grapes of Wrath” lifestyle of migrant farmworkers is a relic of the past that is alien to the lives of native-born U.S. residents.

Produce growers know this better than anyone.

They often lose workers to construction, hotels and other industries that pay better and/or offer an easier paycheck or better advancement potential.

Birth dearth

Shifting demographics may soon change the debate over immigration but likely won’t make securing workers any easier for growers and packers.

The Pew research cites the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, tougher border enforcement, a rise in deportations, growing dangers with illegal border crossings and improved economic conditions in Mexico for declining immigration.

The study also mentions falling birthrates in Mexico, which is reaching the end of a population bubble that sent tens of millions of Mexicans north searching for employment opportunities that were not available back home.

In 1960, the fertility rate in Mexico was 7.3 — meaning, on average, a Mexican woman had seven children. The rate dropped to 2.4 by 2009.

This helps explain why the number of people born in Mexico residing in the U.S. began shooting up in the early 1970s after remaining at less than 1 million since at least the mid-19th century, according to Pew figures.

The produce industry has become accustomed to an ever-larger pool of Mexican migrants to draw from, but those days appear numbered as the population of eligible workers ages and shrinks — or stays home to work in Mexico.

In the next decade or two, produce businesses will begin to feel the pinch.

It underscores the need for the U.S. to come to terms with economic realities in one of its strongest export sectors — agriculture — and ensure the industry has flexible access to the workers it needs.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.