Testing the Limits of an Immigration Myth

As we have noted previously for MurthyBlog readers, the immigration debate is only as good as the information that goes into it. Some misconceptions, even outright fabrications, have gained a veneer of respectability by dint of sheer repetition. One piece of popular mythology holds that unemployment among native-born Americans would drop like a rock “if only” the undocumented workers would go back to their home countries. Immigrant advocates and labor economists have disputed this claim, noting that most Americans are unlikely to take the jobs that rely heavily on the labor of illegal immigrants, such as picking fruits and vegetables.

The United Farm Workers (UFW) – a union representing agricultural laborers – has started a campaign to test the limits of the popular myth, that American workers would stream into jobs currently occupied by illegal immigrants, given half a chance. The campaign is rather pointedly called “Take Our Jobs,” and it invites native-born Americans to sign up to work as field hands at farms around the country (See http://www.takeourjobs.org.) The Associated Press reports that the UFW campaign will be featured on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” on July 8th, “to highlight how unlikely the prospect of Americans lining up to pick strawberries or grapes.” (See Immigrant Farm Workers’ Challenge: Take Our Jobs, by Juliana Barbassa, Associated Press, 25.Jun.2010.)

Aspiring agricultural workers can sign up on a website set up by the UFW, giving their names, eMail addresses, and zip codes on a form entitled, “I want to be a farm worker.” The fine print says it all: “**Job may include using hand tools such as knives, hoes, shovels, etc. Duties may include tilling the soil, transplanting, weeding, thinning, picking, cutting, sorting & packing of harvested produce. May set up & operate irrigation equip. Work is performed outside in all weather conditions (Summertime 90+ degree weather) & is physically demanding, requiring workers to bend, stoop, lift & carry up to 50 lbs. on a regular basis.”

As the Associated Press points out, the temperature warnings are no joke; ag workers in California’s Central Valley can be subjected to long days toiling in triple-digit temperatures, and the ever-present threat of heat exhaustion makes farm labor one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. The AP also reports that the wages are nothing to write home about, noting that “[f]arm workers are excluded from federal overtime provisions, and small farms don’t even have to pay the minimum wage.”

The point of all this? The UFW WebSite wants people to recognize that “the food we all eat … comes to us from the labor of undocumented farm workers,” noting that “three-quarters of all crop workers working in American agriculture were born outside the United States,” of whom at least 50% lack authorization to work here. According to the Associated Press, the UFW is trying to build support for AgJobs, a proposal currently pending in the Senate that would provide legal immigration status to foreign-born workers who have worked in U.S. agriculture for at least 150 days in the previous two years.

Now that comprehensive immigration reform has fizzled out, some members of Congress may be looking to pass piecemeal reforms – such as AgJobs and the DREAM Act – before they hit the campaign trail. The pointed humor of the “Take Our Jobs” campaign may play a salutary role in what’s left of the immigration debate by subjecting a popular myth to the ultimate test – the real-world labor market. It will be interesting to see how many unemployed Americans – if any – actually take them up on their offer.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.