Agribusiness' Dirty Secret

by A.V. Krebs

Des Moines, Iowa
Lost amidst the 1996 Presidential campaign rhetoric and the political posturing in Congress is the fact that the illegal immigration issue has historically and remains even today agribusiness's dirty little secret.

From the blueberry fields of Maine to the poultry processing plants of the Delmarva region on the Mid-Atlantic Coast, from the tobacco fields of North Carolina to the corn fields of Iowa, from the kill floors of the beef packing plants of Nebraska, to the fruit and vegetable fields of California's fertile valleys, immigrants - the vast majority of them believed to be illegal - have and continue to supply agribusiness with cheap, docile, unorganized labor.

In addition, agribusiness in its single-minded pursuit of such labor, particularly in the U.S. Southwest, has historically instigated, encouraged and sanctioned such immigration.

Paradoxically, when politicians and social commentators today discuss the "immigration crisis" it is almost always in terms of the Mexican border, with scant attention paid to those thousands of legal and illegal immigrants coming into the United States from other parts of the world.

For the moment, however, let's put aside the question of who really are "illegal" immigrants on territory that now comprises one third of the U.S. land mass and which once in fact belonged to Mexico prior to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848.

Here was land literally stolen from the Mexican people by a handful of thievish land barons in what land reformer Henry George once described as "a history of greed, of perjury, of corruption, of spoliation and high-handed robbery for which it will be difficult to find a parallel."

The long-term consequences of such action was that, in the words of Ernesto Galarza, author of the classic Merchants of Labor, the Treaty left "the toilers on one side of the border, the capital and the best land on the other."

Therefore, it is no accident that throughout U.S. history the chronic areas of rural poverty have remained the South, where the plantation system has dominated the agricultural scene, and the Southwest, where vast tracts of productive land have remained in the hands of a privileged few through the years.

Clearly, U.S. agribusiness can say of illegal immigrants that they are the "slaves we rent." When G.C. Hanna of the Department of Vegetable Crops, University of California-Davis, explained why he had undertaken the development of a tomato for processing and canning that could be harvested by a machine, he observed:

"I had gotten interested in the history of asparagus in California and I found that the first asparagus cutters were Chinese and the second group was Japanese. Then we had immigrating Italians and Portuguese, then the Hindus and then the Filipinos in the 1940's. And then I got to looking at the rest of our agricultural labor and I found out that most were imported nationalities and we were running out of nationalities to import."

A recent example of the hypocrisy that has surrounded the influx of "illegals," now publicly being decried in Congress and in our statehouses, is the current legislative effort to grant "temporary" visas to some 250,000 foreign farm workers.

This so-called "guest worker" program is but one more effort by corporate agribusiness to revive what three decades ago was called the bracero program which allowed over four million Mexican contract workers into the U.S. from 1942 to 1964 as part of a World War II "emergency" work program.

Such an attempt to revive the "guest worker" program was made unsuccessfully in 1984 in a bill co-sponsored by then-U.S. Senator Pete Wilson of California. In 1986 Wilson would also champion immigration legislation which facilitated a continuing supply of more than a million inexpensive farm laborers.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that in light of this vast, cheap labor pool available to agribusiness, that Wilson as a U.S. Senator, according to the National Library on Money in Politics, received some $357,734 from agribusiness-oriented political action committees.

Although Wilson argued that his provision "would guarantee decent housing, workmen's compensation, and other benefits for the seasonal farm worker" U.S. Labor Dept. statistics show that more than one million farm workers and their families already live below the poverty line, three-quarters of them receiving no government assistance. Two-thirds of all migrant farm workers, and fully one-half of settled farm workers, now earn poverty-level incomes.

Consequent to Wilson's 1986 legislation, immigration officials have estimated that between 30-70% of foreign farm workers in the U.S. obtained their jobs using fraudulent documents. At the same time the U.S. Labor Department has estimated that at any given time, 12%, or at least 190,000 domestic farm workers, are out of a job.

Not so ironic, this is the same Pete Wilson who as California governor recently vigorously (and successfully) campaigned for the passage of the state's Proposition 187. Unless overturned by the courts, the law will strip illegal aliens of health and welfare benefits and deny schooling to their children.

Reflecting on Wilson's effort, Katie Leishman, writing in the New York Times, wonders what might have happened if the election had taken place at a major harvest time when half the state's farm labor force was made up of illegals? "Farmworkers took part in freedom marches and scattered demonstrations, to no effect; a series of harvest strikes would have been a different matter. Latino leaders often resort to lyrical reminders of how handsomely Mexicans treated those who stole California from them. This kind of cant goes nowhere; but if Cesar Chavez were alive, he would have taken the debate right to the bottom line."

As Wilson's fellow GOP conservative William Bennett notes: "California draws in thousands of migrant (agricultural) workers each year, then complains that some stay. The message is: Come for a few months, then get out. That's not a sensible way to conduct policy."

Yet, as Philip Martin, the University of California agricultural labor scholar, points out, "there's nothing as permanent as a temporary worker." Bernard E. Anderson, the U.S. Department of Labor's Assistant Secretary for Employment Standards, adds, "guest worker programs are often abusive and invariably lead to expanded, not diminished levels of permanent immigration."

Lost in all the political demagoguery surrounding the illegal immigration issue today, however, is the simple fact, as Gustavo De La Vina, chief agent of the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego points out, "they are coming across to get jobs."

From the fields, to the packing sheds, to the food processing factories of U.S. agribusiness this seeming lure of jobs for people already living in near destitution in their own economically ravaged country continues to fuel our nation's influx of illegal immigration.

In a country where the currency has lost about half its value against the dollar since the peso was devalued in December 1994, interest rates have soared, bankruptcies have multiplied and over one million people have been forced out of work, as paying jobs have become highly prized.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, throughout Mexico - a country where 26% of workers are either unemployed or without full-time jobs - doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and other professionals are crossing the border to wait on tables, filling lowly clerical jobs or harvesting American crops.

In that process many of them must brave the New River, near Calexico, California.

Across a river covered with white suds, raw sewage from homes in Mexico, industrial waste from U.S.-owned factories in Mexico and chemical poison runoffs from nearby fields, they come. Border Patrol Agent Bleu Siders describes the scene: "It's one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Aliens go in this river, we have to go after them."

Such cheap labor no matter what their background, however, have always been welcomed by agribusiness. As Jack Snider, boss of the asparagus packing shed at Black Dog Farms in Holtville, Calif., who has supervised Mexican professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, told the Wall Street Journal: "I love professionals. They can diagnose you while you work."

It is no coincidence that more than 70% of legal and illegal immigrants in the U.S. now live in California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, all major agricultural producing states. Likewise, it is also no coincidence that a mere 139,560 farms of the nation's total 1.925 million farms have over 77% of the total U.S. agricultural labor expenses.

It is just not the fields and orchards of the U.S. that draw illegal immigrants, but in recent years there has been a marked increase in their number in the meat and poultry slaughter-houses of the Midwest.

In September 1995, 90 such illegals were arrested in a ConAgra beef packing plant in Garden City, Kansas and in March 125 were arrested at a similar Cargill plant in Schuyler, Nebraska.

Northwestrn Arkansas, where such agribusiness giants as Tyson Foods, Hudson Foods, ConAgra and Simmons Industries have major poultry operations, has seen an increase of over 30,000 Hispanic workers just in the past few years attracted by jobs that pay between $6-$7 an hour.

A U.S. government-sponsored Operation South PAW (Protecting American Workers) in September 1995 alone netted some 2,000 illegal aliens across the South. It is estimated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that such raids channeled more than $3 million in wages back to U.S. workers.

Today, agribusiness both exploits and blames immigrant workers for many of the social ills which pervade our society. But, as John Palacio of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) explains, "Immigrants take jobs Americans don't want. They are not only blamed for economic ills, but exploited for cheap labor. But they contribute much more than they receive."

One 1995 study, sponsored by the Cato Institute, a "libertarian research group," found that each year the average immigrant family adds about $2,500 in taxes to the economy above what it consumes in public costs.

Yet, amidst all the controversy and recent federal and state law making as it applies to immigrants, one important study which gets to the heart of the matter has been all but ignored by the public. In 1992 a bipartisan Commission on Agricultural workers, created by Congress, set forth six recommendations (See accompanying box) designed to improve the working conditions for the nation's farm workers.

As their report indicates, it's time that the public understand that the social burden cheap farm labor brings to rural and urban communities should be placed where many economists believe it should be - in the cost of the product itself.

It is time that we acknowledge, as Dan Rather did on CBS-TV's recent documentary "Legacy of Shame", "the brutal human price to be paid for our food," and that we put an end to a system that takes for granted the exploitation of men, women and children for the sake of the so-called "world's cheapest food supply."

Philip Martin, for example, notes in this regard that if the wages of all agricultural workers were doubled, the cost of California produce would rise approximately only 10 percent. This would cost the government nothing, but would increase tax revenues by increasing taxable income at the same time it would lower welfare costs by decreasing the number of families seeking government need-based services.

Also important is the fact that the public needs to recognize that the cheap wages paid to farm laborers and the cheap raw material prices paid to farmers are only enriching the coffers of a select few transnational food manufacturing corporations. Meanwhile, the society as a whole is left to pay an exacting social and economic cost for such exploitation.

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project and author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books: 1992).

The Commission on Agricultural Workers Recommendations