The Immigration Problem That No One Wants To Solve

·11 min read

One evening, while on the air doing my talk radio broadcast, I brought up the topic of immigration. A pear farmer in Lakeport, California, named Nick Ivicevich called. He had to step outside for better reception on his cellphone.

As we spoke, you could hear periodic dull thuds in the background. No pattern to them. Thud. Thud-thud… thud.

I finally asked him, “Nick, what is that I’m hearing in the background?”

“Those are pears rotting off the trees in my grove out here,” he said.

You could hear the angst and frustration in his voice.

“I waited my whole life for a crop like this,” he said.

It was his best pear-crop in 45 years of tending the trees in his grove, but like other Lakeport growers, his fruit rotted by the ton because he couldn’t find enough pickers to harvest them. Nick lost nearly two million pounds of pears.

Not long afterward, The New York Times ran a front-page story on the plight of pear growers in Lake County, a region about 90 miles north of San Francisco and a part of California ideally suited for the crop. The accompanying photo of one family farmer sobbing into her hand as she stood before thousands of rotted pears on the ground was heartbreaking.

That was in 2006. Nick died seven years later at age 77, but the situation for growers hadn’t changed. It was even worse. Pamela, Nick’s daughter, had taken over the 122-acre orchard that had been in the family since 1960.

“Pears are labor-intensive crops, hand-harvested,” Pamela said. “We need a program that makes it easy for growers to hire people who know how to do this work without them worrying about how to get here to do it.”

Every grower I have spoken to would agree, yet every grower I have ever spoken to, has blamed Washington’s inability to craft a sensible, reality-based immigration reform policy.

Therein lies the heart of the matter: Immigration is a problem no one wants to solve. And I’m beginning to wonder if anyone in Washington even knows how to solve it, or worse, even wants to.

Take Title 42, the public health border policy implemented during the pandemic. It allowed authorities to swiftly expel migrants at U.S. land borders. Since it was enacted in March 2020, authorities have expelled nearly 7 million border crossers.

And what about now, with its expiration?

“It’s going to be chaotic for a while,” President Joe Biden told reporters last week.

I suspect many feared images similar to those Black Friday shoppers of yesteryear. Friday morning, 6 a.m., the store opens its doors, and the shoppers, camped outside for days, flood inside like a cattle call. Chaos.

Stores took measures to ease that shopping rush with sales at the beginning of Thanksgiving week and opening their doors on Thanksgiving night. Online shopping has eliminated much of that mayhem, but you get the point. Retailers took countermeasures to make the process more gradual.

“I would have liked to see them phase out Title 42 far earlier,” former director of border management on the National Security Council Andrea Flores told NPR. “To not see them formally try and end it till long after we had testing, vaccines, and other mechanisms in place to deal with the public health concerns, they really lost some time to build out a more orderly process for the people who have been waiting for two, three years to come and work, reunite with family or seek asylum.”

So far, though, we haven’t seen throngs of people storm into the country, suggesting that the problem might be more manageable than some had feared.

That might not matter, though. From a political standpoint, the issue won’t be defined by what’s happening on the ground. It’ll be defined by those seeking ways to exploit it. Thousands of people may come through the system smoothly, but if even a single flashpoint occurs, any mishap, any glitch will be blown out of proportion by the agendized to make that single moment a poster child for the entire effort. And that will reflect badly on the Biden administration, fairly or not ― and the task of crafting a broader, sensible, comprehensive immigration policy becomes that much harder.

There may be a reason why no one wants to solve the immigration problem: Politically, the problem is far more useful than a solution.

Washington has not passed a single major piece of immigration legislation into law since 1986, with the Immigration Reform and Control Act (often referred to as “Simpson-Mazzoli,” the two lawmakers behind the bill, and yes, they were from different parties. Bipartisanship. How quaint!).

Countless efforts have failed, and with an increasingly fragmented society where it is difficult to achieve agreement on the common good, and a dysfunctional political system where extremists and special interest groups can control legislation, the likelihood of reform seems remote at best.

A bill introduced in Congress in 2019, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, would have relieved the problems faced by both undocumented workers and growers in desperate need of their labor, but the bill died somewhere in the congressional ether earlier this year.

Yet lawmakers love to say how much they love the farmer while the nation’s agriculture sector seems most directly impacted by our failed immigration policy debate.

California’s 70,000 farms employ some 450,000 people at peak harvest. A $50 billion industry annually, it is the nation’s largest agricultural sector and the sole producer of many specialty crops, such as almonds, artichokes, figs, garlic, olives, raisins, rice and walnuts. It is also home to some of the world’s finest wines.

Figures vary, but it’s estimated that anywhere from 60-75% of California’s farmworkers are undocumented. Across the nation, nearly half of America’s farmworkers lack documentation.

A dog looks on as migrants board Border Patrol vans after waiting along the border wall to surrender to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents for immigration and asylum claim processing upon crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States.
A dog looks on as migrants board Border Patrol vans after waiting along the border wall to surrender to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents for immigration and asylum claim processing upon crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States.

A dog looks on as migrants board Border Patrol vans after waiting along the border wall to surrender to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents for immigration and asylum claim processing upon crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States.

According to the latest data from the Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey, 7 in 10 farmworkers were born in Mexico or Central America. Half lack legal status but 85% are what the survey calls “settled,” meaning they don’t migrate in to work on farms temporarily. Instead, they live in the country permanently.

Those numbers don’t include workers in the livestock industry or the 275,000 guest workers who come to the U.S. every year through the H-2A program.

Those with extremist views who want to deport all immigrants here illegally should be careful about what they wish for. Without these immigrants, America’s agricultural economy would crash to a halt, or, as in the case of those pear farmers, end in a dull thud.

Yet despite those hundreds of thousands of laborers, farmers still struggle to find enough workers to plant, tend and pick their crops.

Another reason why this happens: Remaining here year-round, migrant farmworkers gravitate toward more stable occupations like construction and landscaping, and stay there.

Children of farmworkers who arrived decades ago have little interest in fieldwork, leaving much of the vital labor to aging elders.

“That’s what happened here,” Pamela Ivicevich said. “Ramon (Camarena) has been with the farm for decades. His two boys, both mechanics — one in Phoenix, one in Long Beach — didn’t follow in their father’s footsteps. He made sure that wouldn’t happen.”

Sounds like the typical immigrant story of Europeans who migrated here a century ago.

“It’s exactly the same,” said Jennifer Euwer, a pear grower in Oregon’s Hood River Valley, which regularly has suffered worker shortages amidst near-record crops. “Immigrants legalized during the Reagan Administration, their kids were born here and moved on to bigger and better,” she said. “That’s why we’ve relied on a steady influx of newcomers from Mexico. But they’re harder to come by, and Americans won’t do that work.”

Of course, if you believe the hyperbolists, these immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans. Really?

In 2010, with unemployment in California at 12.5% (and 9.3% nationwide), attempts to hire U.S. citizens for farmwork failed dismally, an Associated Press investigation found. Here’s how. From January to June, California farmers advertised at unemployment offices in four states — California, Texas, Nevada and Arizona — for 1,160 harvesting jobs across California. “No experience necessary! We’ll train you!” The only catch: You must be a U.S. citizen.

Just 233 people applied. Just one grower hired people, 36 of them. No one else hired any. Across four states, thousands of farmers. No applicants.

The United Farm Workers of America followed, inviting unemployed Americans to apply online for farming jobs. They got 3 million web hits and 8,600 applications. Only seven pursued training and got hired. Seven out of 8,600, and they all quit.

And this was at a time of high unemployment.

How ironic for the “Great Replacement Theory” believers: They claim they’re being replaced yet refuse to replace the people who they say are replacing them.

Or maybe farming is hard work. And we all know how conservatives claim people aren’t willing to do hard work.

Some say farmers should pay higher wages, a curious argument given the apoplexy of those opposed to raising the minimum wage. The idea isn’t as easy as it sounds. Farmers can only pay what the commodities market will bear. Pay more than the going rate for a product and you’ll go out of business.

Yet pear farmers typically pay a piecework rate that amounts to roughly $22 an hour if you’re good at the job. That’s $176 for an eight-hour day. Many crops paid more — still do. And housing was, and is, often provided, eliminating a critical living expense for workers.

Any takers?

Farmers are adapting, exchanging hand-picked crops like, say, olives, for those that are machine-harvested and require fewer workers.

You can’t do that with the more delicate fruits and veggies.

Ultimately, farmers are planting less, which means less money for them, but more expensive food for consumers.

Meanwhile, we keep telling everybody to eat fruits and vegetables.

Still, we continue to hear the argument that these immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans. It didn’t hold any water when the unemployment rate was the highest it had been since the Great Depression, and it doesn’t hold much water in today’s labor environment. Job growth continues at an impressive monthly pace and the unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since 1969 (though that may change if Republican obstinance lets the nation default on its debt).

Everywhere you turn, businesses are brandishing signs that say, “We’re hiring!” And everywhere you turn, employers say they can’t get anyone to work, not even when, in desperation, fast food outlets like McDonald’s hang giant banners outside their doors shouting, “$16 an hour!”

No takers, apparently. Certainly not enough of them.

“That’s why we’ve relied on a steady influx of newcomers from Mexico,” said Euwer. “But they’re harder to come by, and Americans won’t do that work.”

Why aren’t we offering those jobs to the many immigrants now seeking asylum here in America?

It seems we have two problems, each of which is a solution to the other. But lawmakers ― divisive, sclerotic, and entirely unable to do simple math ― can’t constructively address, let alone solve, the nation’s immigration woes even when an answer is staring them right in the face.

The problem with the immigration problem isn’t immigration; it’s Congress.

Or maybe the problem is politically more useful than the solution, not that the ones whining about it will admit it. It’s particularly so for Republicans. They use it to gin up fear and even prejudice to rally their constituents. And you can bet your last dollar that conservative media outlets will extract every negative image they can out of Title 42’s aftermath to fuel that resentment.

We cannot allow the country to continue to drift without addressing the admittedly painful and difficult subject of immigration. It’s not like we can pretend that immigration is going away.

“We need a program that makes it easy for growers to hire people who know how to do this work without them worrying about how to get here to do it,” Pamela Ivicevich said.

Immigration reform benefits everyone but the sad fact is, we seem to be completely incapable of effectively dealing with the problem because, apparently, we don’t want to.