Who Will Pick our Apples?

To fix the unauthorized immigration problem, the legal immigration system must be fixed.
December 28, 2012 • Commentary
This article appeared in Orange County Register on December 28, 2012.

The apple market is booming in Washington State, as farmers have seen an increase of 50 percent of fruit shipped to keep up with skyrocketing demand. As other apple‐​producing regions of the country struggle with meager harvests following poor weather, this year’s harvest should be especially profitable — if Washington farmers can find the workers they need.

That is a big if. The overwhelmingly Hispanic workforce for the apple harvest already has 13,000 more participants this year than in 2011, but it’s not enough to satisfy the increased demand. “I’m down 40 percent from the labor I need,” said Steve Nunley, manager of a 3,000-acre apple orchard near Wapato, Wash.

Mr. Nunley, like other farmers, has increased pay to $24 for every 1,000-pound bin of Gala apples picked, up from $18 last year. Even so he has only 200 pickers right now, just over half the number he needs. Consequently, he expects having to let tons of fruit rot unpicked this season because raising wages further will make the harvest unprofitable.

Visitors often ask if non‐​Hispanics ever apply for picking jobs, and they hear the story about two “crazy” Canadians who drove to Okanogan County, who picked three bins of apples the first day, one bin the second day, and then said “we’re outta here” after that. The experience with using prisoners, who fail to match the productivity of mostly Hispanic pickers, is similar.

Farmers’ complaints and the political theater of marching prisoners out into fields, as was done last year, are all unnecessary. Hispanic workers, mostly from Mexico or in the country as unauthorized immigrants, want to pick apples and are able to do so at the wages that make apple growing profitable in Washington State.

Farmers want to hire them. Unfortunately, there is no lawful way for these two groups to come together.

But Washington State is just a microcosm of what’s wrong with the immigration system. The H-2A visa for seasonal agricultural workers is supposed to accomplish this — but it is unusable. While the program is numerically uncapped, in reality the regulations and restrictions are so burdensome and time consuming that it is cost prohibitive for farmers to seek these visas for migrant workers.

Four different federal agencies administer the H-2A visa, so inspectors and the fines they levy for violations are omnipresent. According to George W. Bush’s Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, “Many who have tried it [the H-2A visa], report such bad experiences that they stopped using it altogether.”

Farmer troubles with the H-2A visa were revealed in a statewide survey conducted of farmers in Georgia in 2011 after it passed a tough immigration enforcement law. Only 3.4 percent of farmers in Georgia used the program.

Many dismissed the H-2A as an option, with 17 percent of responders saying they had heard negative things about it and 26 percent reporting they never considered using it.

American workers rarely consider agricultural jobs. In North Carolina, farmers advertised 7,000 job openings to Americans before applying for H-2A visas to fill the spots; 250 applied, 70 showed up for work the first day, and after two weeks, five remained. If it wasn’t for a migrant workforce, there would not be much agriculture in the U.S.

Since the legal system is so difficult to use and American workers are so scarce, it is no wonder farmers turn to unauthorized immigrants. Only two percent of the national agricultural workforce works on H-2A visas. Conservative estimates show that half of the agricultural workforce is unauthorized. To fix the unauthorized immigration problem, the legal immigration system must be fixed.

The recent STEM Jobs Act that passed the House of Representatives concerned visas for highly skilled workers. While important, the technology sector is not the only one that would wither without foreign workers. When Congress considers immigration reform in the near future, green cards and a robust, cheap and easy‐​to‐​use guest worker program for lower and mid‐​skilled workers must be included.

In 1977, Ronald Reagan, talking about what he called “the illegal alien fuss,” said, “[O]ne thing is certain in this hungry world: No regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters.” Our immigration restrictions are doing precisely that.

Congress should take a cue from the Gipper and allow migrants to legally work together.

About the Author
Alex Nowrasteh

Director of Immigration Studies and the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies