Does American Agriculture Depend On Illegal Immigration? Nope.
Tell someone you oppose illegal immigration and they will respond reflexively with something like: “but we need illegal immigrants to do jobs Americans don’t want to do, like picking our food.”
Although it’s devoid of merit, many people find this argument compelling. After all, it seems to make cosmetic sense. Of course there are jobs no one wants to do—what child dreams of growing up to be a janitor or dishwasher? No one wants to pick berries in California’s summer heat.
After buying this premise, many buy the implied conclusion: America would starve without illegal aliens—who would pick our food?
Notice the bait-and-switch: advocates of illegal immigration lure people in with a reasonable bait premise (there are jobs people don’t like), switch the argument’s focus (people don’t like picking crops), and then let the interlocutor’s imagination do the rest (no one to pick food means no food, and no food means starvation).
Arguments with implied conclusions can be very powerful because we can’t control our imaginations—they work whether we want them to or no, and often reach unreasonable conclusions. If someone told you outright that without illegal aliens everyone in America would starve to death you’d be skeptical—we could just import the food, things might get more expensive but we’d survive.
But when left with an ominous cliffhanger, our brain fills in the gaps—generally with the worst-case-scenario. We imagine the consequences of not growing food. Starving children. Bowed limbs. Water-bellies. Suddenly we get a gut feeling, and this feeling changes the way we see the problem. Illegal immigration is no longer abstract, it’s visceral—at this point you’re predisposed to favor any argument that keeps the specter of starvation away, including illegal immigration.
Of course, the facts don’t support this whatsoever: America’s agricultural industry doesn’t depend on illegal immigrants. Americans won’t starve without illegal labor.
America Won’t Starve Without Illegal Immigration
The debate over illegal immigration and American agriculture is always framed as a dilemma: either we allow illegal immigrants to work on farms, or agriculture won’t be viable. Pro-illegal immigration advocates frame it this way because it benefits them, but it’s a false dilemma. Why?
It leaves technological innovation completely off the table, and ignores the fact that there are millions of unemployed Americans currently looking for work—many of whom used to work in agriculture before the surge of illegal labor displaced them. Let’s look at the facts.
Agriculture as a whole is not particularly labor-intensive, and hasn’t been for decades. In fact, less than 2 percent of Americans work in agriculture according to data from the World Bank, and even back in 1960 only 6 percent of Americans worked on farms. This is because American agriculture is highly mechanized: machines do everything from milk cows to thresh wheat.
The bottom line: most American farmers don’t benefit at all from illegal labor, since their labor costs are minimal to begin with. American agriculture, as a whole, doesn’t rely on illegal labor.
The one “exception” to this rule are the fruit and nut farms, located primarily in California. Crops like raspberries and almonds are notoriously difficult for machines to pick. There are many reasons for this including the fact that berries require a “soft touch”, they ripen at different times, and bushes are tough for machinery to navigate.
These labor-intensive farms are the main agricultural culprits when it comes to hiring illegal workers—after all, they have the most to gain.
That being said, even labor-intensive agriculture doesn’t depend upon illegal labor—that’s just icing on the cake. In reality, the industry could get by without illegal workers since only four percent of American agricultural workers are illegal aliens, according to a report in the National Review. Likewise, only 1 in 6 workers in California’s nut orchards are illegals.
Removing illegals from the system would be inconvenient for orchards, but it wouldn’t drive them out of business—the remaining employees would simply have to work a few hours of overtime per day.
Do US Farmers Depend on Illegal Immigrants?
There are two ways for the agriculture industry to replace illegal workers: they could either hire Americans, or invest in better technology.
1. The Cost of Produce Without Illegal Immigrants Wouldn’t Increase Much
At this moment there are roughly 23 million unemployed Americans, some of whom have experience in agriculture. On top of this, America has a massive problem with seasonal unemployment for its college students. Either way, there are more than enough Americans to fill the potential labor shortage.
The only reason Americans are not working in agriculture is because they are out-competed by cheap illegal workers. If you read this document published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you will find that millions of Americans—of all races—currently work as janitors, laborers, and agricultural workers. If farmers were required to pay market wages, they wouldn’t have a problem finding employees.
At this point you may be thinking “without illegal immigrants, won’t the cost of produce go up?” Yes—but not by much. Higher labor costs can only result in higher prices to the degree that labor impacts the product’s cost. For example, higher wages for train conductors do not appreciably impact rail shipping costs because there are so few conductors per unit of freight—rail is capital-intensive. Contrast this with some retail outlets that spend 70 percent of their revenue on labor costs.
Agriculture—even fruit and nut orchards—are relatively capital-intensive, ie. the labor costs aren’t all that significant per unit of produce. Proof is in the numbers.
A 2011 report published by the Federation for American Immigration Reform found that the agriculture industry was one of America’s most profitable sectors, and could easily afford to pay its workers 20-30 percent more without significantly impacting profits.
Furthermore, research conducted by Philip Martin, a leading expert on farm labor and migration issues, found that labor costs are negligible compared to the retail cost of produce. In 2006 Martin found that only 5-6 cents of every dollar spent on produce is due to labor costs. Therefore, if illegal aliens were removed from the labor force entirely, and labor costs rose by up to 40 percent to attract American workers, labor would still only account for 7-9 cents. Over the course of a year, this works out to just $9.00 extra for the average household.
This is nothing, especially when you remember that illegal immigration costs America between $115 and $140 billion annually.
2. Mechanization Could Replace Illegal Agricultural Labor & Solve the Farm “Labor Shortage”
The second option, improving technology and embracing mechanization, is the strategy employed by America’s wheat, corn, and dairy industry. Have you ever had trouble affording flour or milk? Probably not. You can thank mechanization for this fact, not illegal aliens.
Although adopting new technology can be expensive, it brings costs down in the long run. And as it turns out, there’s a good argument to be made that the American fruit and nut industry’s addiction to cheap illegal labor has stifled technological development, and kept prices artificially high.
Farmers should, and could mechanize—today. The technology exists, if only America’s fruit farms would embrace it.
For example, an American company called “Abundant Robotics” has developed a fruit-picking robot that can harvest apples and peaches. Here’s what it the machine looks like:
If that doesn’t impress you, other companies have developed machines that are able to pick much smaller, more delicate fruit, like grapes and strawberries:
US Farmers Don’t Depend on Illegal Immigrants
America’s farmers don’t rely on illegal alien labor. This is a myth cooked up by the pro-illegal immigration lobby to further their agenda. Nothing more.
I’d go so far as to argue that illegal immigration actually has no economic benefits on the whole—the gains are reaped only by special interest groups, while America pays the price. If you need more proof then read my article on the economics of illegal immigration. This is a one-sided debate.