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Farm Labor Crisis: Indentured Servant Edition

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Remember when farm owners were loudly complaining to any available journalist that there was a nationwide farm labor crisis due to overly restrictive immigration policy?

Well, they're still saying that. But now they are also worried that proposals to create a "path to citizenship" for immigrants currently living illegally in the United States might also create a farm labor shortage. As it turns out, the farm lobby is worried that once we legalize these immigrants, they won't want to work on farms anymore.

There's good reason for the farm lobby to worry about this. Once authorized to work in the U.S., many farm workers will no doubt seek employment in less onerous conditions. This happened after the last immigration amnesty in 1986. Unless a new wave of illegal immigration follows, farm owners would truly have to compete in the broader — legal — jobs market. Wages would have to rise or farms will have trouble attracting workers.

The farm lobby has a not-quite-novel solution to this situation: mandatory farm labor.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

The tight labor market explains why farm groups are pressing Congress to include, in any immigration overhaul, provisions that would ensure a steady flow of workers and prevent an exodus of newly legalized laborers from the sector. Under one possible scenario, agriculture workers would earn permanent legal residency by working a certain number of days on farms each year; those who worked longer would get a green card sooner.

"It's important that existing experienced workers be encouraged to remain in the agriculture sector for a while," says Craig Regelbrugge, national co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. A Senate immigration proposal, which could be in a bill next month, calls for stabilizing the current workforce and establishing a new temporary-worker program.

Ah, there's our old friend Regelbrugge, who has apparently recovered from getting trounced in our debate last year.

At the very least this should take the libertarian sheen off the farm labor debate. The farm lobby is not demanding open borders. It is demanding cheap labor, even if it means government forcing immigrants into a new form of indentured servitude.

The implications of this policy would be very disturbing. Obviously, the ability of farm workers to negotiate for fair wages would be greatly handicapped because the cost of not working would be the loss of access to legal residency. This is a subsidy for farm owners disguised as immigration reform.

What would happen to workers who shirked the mandatory labor or fled the farm? No doubt there would be calls for the government to strictly enforce the farm labor requirement. We already have a lot of experience with rounding up fugitive agricultural workers. It isn't exactly a national policy most folks would care to brag about.

Most likely, of course, farm owners will simply get around the problem of the flight of newly legal workers from farms by importing new illegal workers. This is exactly what happened after the last amnesty, when illegal immigration grew rather than shrank (as policymakers promised it would).

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