Since the passing of Alabama’s tough new immigration law several months ago, two major things have happened:
1. Many immigrant workers have left the workforce.
2. Employers – especially agricultural operations – have found it nearly impossible to replace the lost workers.
In retrospect, neither development seems particularly surprising. Many immigrant workers, whether they’re here in the United States legally or not, fear the heavy hand of government and will opt to find a more inviting environment than the one in Alabama today. For now at least, that environment is better in nearly all of the other 49 states.
And while the jobs no longer being done by immigrants may now be sought by American citizens – after all, the ~9.9% unemployment rate in Alabama is higher than the overall U.S. rate – the appetite for doing many of these jobs dissipates quickly when people are confronted by the reality of what is required to perform them.
Alicia Caldwell, an Associated Press reporter, spoke last week with some Alabama farmers to find out what has happened since Americans were hired to replace immigrant workers.
“Most show up late, work slower than seasoned farm hands and are ready to call it a day after lunch or by mid-afternoon. Some quit after a single day,” Caldwell reported in her AP article published last week.
As a result, farmers are opting to leave crops in the field rather than harvesting them.
What we have here is a classic Economics 101 lesson. If workers aren’t willing to do the jobs at a labor cost that will enable the products to be sold at a competitive price, the crops won’t be brought to market.
If agricultural operations in the whole world faced the same situation as Alabama farmers, it’s possible that a new labor/price equilibrium could be established. But not only is Alabama competing against other states where immigrant labor continues to be used, it’s also competing against other countries that produce the same crops.
The result? No one is winning. Not the farmers … not the immigrant workers … nor the unemployed Americans who have decided that ramaining unemployed is preferable to working a difficult or unpleasant job.
The Alabama state government is attempting to support the transition away from immigrant workers. A program started recently seeks to pair Alabamians interested in jobs with the state’s farming operations that need replacement labor.
So far, the results of this effort haven’t been encouraging, with only ~260 people registering interest in temporary agricultural jobs.
Out in the field, reporter Caldwell has found ample anecdotal evidence that underscores the disconnect between the “theory” versus “practical reality” of unemployed Americans taking advantage of these new job opportunities:
Tomato farmer Wayne Smith said he has never been able to keep a staff of American workers in his 25 years of farming.
“People in Alabama are not going to do this,” said Smith, who grows about 75 acres of tomatoes in the northeast part of the state. “They’d work one day and then just wouldn’t show up again.”
At this farm, field workers get $2 for every 25-pound box of tomatoes they fill. Skilled pickers can make anywhere from $200 to $300 a day, he said. Unskilled workers make much less.
A crew of four Hispanics can earn about $150 each by picking 250-300 boxes of tomatoes in a day, said Jerry Spencer of Grow Alabama, which purchases and sells locally owned produce. A crew of 25 Americans recently picked 200 boxes – giving them each $24 for the day.
Years ago, an old Russian emigré professor of Slavic history and literature at Vanderbilt University advised us students, “As you grow older and wiser, you’ll come to realize that the great issues of the day can’t be debated in black and white. Because the two sides aren’t black and white; they’re really shades of gray.”
Those words could well be applied to the immigration debate and its socioeconomic consequences. Certainly, one “black and white” issue that should be banished from the discussion is the notion that if all of the jobs done by illegal immigrants were to become available to Americans, our unemployment problem would be magically solved.