The world may be ending. I agree with President Bush on an issue.
Specifically, I agree with him that America needs a workable guest worker program. It is either this, continue our current “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” policy on illegal immigration, or kiss goodbye to a large part of our domestic agricultural business. Of the three choices, a guest worker program is the least odious.
Now it would be an interesting experiment to discover just how high agricultural wages would need to be to entice ordinary Americans to spend long days engaged in backbreaking labor in the hot sun pulling crops out of the ground. What would the wage rate be? $20 an hour? $30 an hour? Considering that when the field is picked, it is “see you next year”, I am not sure even these wages would be sufficient. Nevertheless, I am confident that supply could meet demand at some point. Wal-Mart greeters would probably find that living the transient life in tarpaper shacks beats sticking happy faces on customers for $6 an hour at the local Wal-Mart. It might even have an inflationary effect on wages overall, which is not necessarily bad. Real wages have been flat or slipping for the past few years, depending on which statistics you want to believe.
So those farm fresh tomatoes, instead of being $1.29 a pound might sell for twice or three times what they cost now. Perhaps we would continue to eat the same amount of tomatoes, but more likely, we would search for less expensive alternatives. Specifically, we would start importing tomatoes, and they grow fine just south of the border. Thanks to NAFTA, they would be expeditiously trucked over the international border. As a result, American farmers would not be able to compete for long selling tomatoes. Perhaps they could try to grow more exotic crops with higher profit margins, but it is unlikely that our plentiful truck farms and orchards would remain in business for long. No, they would likely shrink, or go out of business together. More profitable uses for the land could probably be found, and it probably would not be for agriculture. The effect would be to gradually reduce our agricultural business to those crops that can be processed by machines only. While free trade seems to be considered the ideal these days, those of us interested in national security need to think hard about whether it makes sense for this nation to outsource its ability to feed itself.
Consequently, to stay in the agricultural market at all we have find workers willing to work for what Americans consider miserly wages. However, if you are living in poverty south of the border and your current home has an open sewer in the backyard and the walls of your house are made of tarpaper, you’re your kitchen floor consists of dirt, and your drinking water is unhealthy, well, $5.15 an hour or even less are pretty good wages. After all your needs are more modest than the average American’s. You may need but certainly do not expect health insurance. Owning a car is likely as fantastic an idea as scaling Mount Everest. In addition, you may have a dozen mouths to feed south of the border. Even at $5.15 an hour, these wages buy a lot of tortilla flour.
$5.15 an hour, or even less, clearly is not enough to live on if you expect a house that follows sound building codes. However, if your expectations are third world it is more than a living wage. In fact, it may be the difference between whether your children back home can even afford to go to school. Just because childhood education is compulsory in our country, does not mean this is true in much of the rest of the world. This became clear to me when I visited the Philippines in the 1980s.
Our current immigration system is a joke. Anyone who really thinks that we can beef up border security enough to even modestly reduce the flood of this traffic is living in fantasyland. These same sorts of people probably also believe we can win the drug war through interdiction. Arguably, if we got very tough with employers who hire illegal immigrants, we could change the dynamics significantly. However, if this were possible we would soon see a huge inflationary effect across our economy. If you are wondering how gas prices can be $2.50 a gallon yet inflation remains so tame, thank that illegal dishwasher in the restaurants you frequent, the poultry worker at Tysons processing plant in Arkansas, or the day laborer hired by the contractor who cuts your lawn. If you think inflation is tame solely due to the sound policies of the Federal Reserve, please send me your name and address. I have some swampland that should interest you.
Therefore, a guest worker program is not a bad idea. It is a pragmatic approach to a problem that will not go away. It gives these illegal immigrants some status and protection and does away with the duplicity of our current system. It is not the perfect solution. I cannot imagine having to leave my family for years to toil in America for long hours and paltry wages. At least this laborer’s family is likely to have a higher standard of living then they would otherwise have in their native countries. Similar reasoning brought most of our distant relatives to this country. At least an illegal immigrant’s children are more likely to acquire an education. This is not the ideal way to end the world’s incessant poverty problem, but it is one pragmatic means to an end.
We Americans need to acknowledge the truth: we depend on low cost labor to maintain our standard of living. There is no way this genie is going back in the bottle. We can deal pragmatically and realistically with the problem, or we can continue to close our eyes and let the situation worsen. We should insist though that those companies that hire guest workers fully comply with the law. We should also insist that while they are with us, guest workers have access to affordable housing, healthy food, and education for their dependent children.