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Iowa State economist Wallace Huffman has been studying farm labor for 30 years. Photo by Bob Elbert
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Promise of immigration reform is mostly talk for political candidates, ISU economist says
AMES, Iowa -- Presidential candidates no doubt will make immigration reform a key issue during this Saturday's (Aug. 11) GOP Straw Poll at Iowa State University's Hilton Coliseum. But an Iowa State economist who studies immigration and its effect on farm labor says political talk is cheap.
Wallace Huffman, the Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and an ISU economist, says politicians talk tough on illegal immigration when they see political gain in it, but typically back off on real reform because the issue is so complex.
"As we're approaching a new presidential election, it's a lot of politics and discussion and not the will to do anything very specific, because it's difficult," Huffman said. "It's my sense that until the next presidential election is over with - and some new senators and house members are being elected also - nothing's going to happen because it's just too sensitive of a topic.
"Since the 1920s, American borders have been relatively open for a country of its level of economic development," he said. "You kind of see cycles in these things in catching the national interest and then maybe some concern with the people who are here illegally...but then it goes back to business as usual. That's what I think will happen. It will be business as usual and then various parts of the country will have different effective enforcement as I see it."
One of those parts of the country was Hazelton, Pa. A federal district judge ruled last week that the anti-immigrant law passed earlier by Hazelton officials was unconstitutional. He found in favor of 11 plaintiffs, including three undocumented immigrants, who had challenged the ordinance.
Presented paper at D.C. immigration reform conference
Huffman presented research at the conference, "Immigration Reform: Implications for Farmers, Farm Workers, and U.S. Agriculture," in Washington, D.C. on June 13-14. His paper, "Demand for Farm Labor in the Coastal Fruit and Salad Bowl States Relative to Midland States: Four Decades of Experience," provided an assessment of the changing demand for farm labor as reflected in the capital-labor ratios of four states that are large producers of fresh fruits and vegetables. His conclusion: U.S. farmers would pay a hefty price for tougher immigration policy -- particularly in California and Florida, the major coastal producers of fresh fruits and vegetables.
"We would expect that a dramatic reduction in immigrant farm workers due to a new tough immigration policy would cause the wage rate for hired and contract farm workers to rise more rapidly than in the past, and the capital service-to-labor ratio also to increase with lag," Huffman wrote in the paper. "Although some harvesting activities have not effectively experienced technical change that lessens the burden of hard field work, a rapidly rising real-farm wage rate would cause growers and inventors to search for new ways to economize on farm labor."
The byproducts of true immigration reform
After studying farm labor economics for 30 years, Huffman says that one reason true immigration reform is so politically divisive is that while deportation of illegal immigrants would open up new jobs for Americans, it would substantially increase farmers' labor costs -- by at least 25 to 30 percent. He says that higher labor costs would result in two negative byproducts -- higher costs in the grocery store, and possible outsourcing of some major crop production to countries with lower labor costs.
"Fresh fruits and vegetables would expect it to have one of the larger impacts because labor can be as much as 30 to 45 percent of the cost of production," Huffman said. "Still, what the consumer pays is still frequently two times the farmers' costs because transportation and handling are also involved. So the direct impact (of immigration reform) on consumers is higher food prices. Those foods that would be more labor intensive, you'd see higher impacts, and less labor intensive smaller impacts -- except for really hand-intensive produce like raspberries and blackberries. A 10 percent increase in grocery store prices could easily happen.
"There are growers in California and probably Florida that have set up some operations in Mexico as alternative sources of fresh fruits and vegetables," he continued. "The big producer of winter tomatoes for the western portion of the United States is in a lower region of Mexico. It's kind of pre-emptive (of immigration reform) and it's diversifying your interests."
Will true immigration reform ever happen? Huffman doesn't think so. He has previously offered an alternative plan as a possible compromise solution.
"It would be useful to try to develop some kind of mechanism to allow larger numbers of workers from Mexico to come to the U.S. legally to work -- to develop something new and different in the H2A program (legal foreign worker program, http://www.h2ausa.com/)," he said. "Some kind of scheme so that you could meet some of these real needs for relatively low-skill labor at reasonable wage rates. And these workers would come here and work for some periods of time and, periodically at least, have to go back to Mexico."
Huffman reports that he proposed his plan some six or seven years ago to a U.S. Senate Committee, but it received little support. That hasn't stopped him from continuing study of how the use of migrant workers impacts farm labor.
ISU Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and economist Wallace Huffman presented research at the conference, "Immigration Reform: Implications for Farmers, Farm Workers, and U.S. Agriculture," in Washington, D.C. on June 13-14. His conclusion: U.S. farmers would pay a hefty price for tougher immigration policy -- particularly in California and Florida, the major coastal producers of fresh fruits and vegetables.
"So the direct impact (of immigration reform) on consumers is higher food prices. Those foods that would be more labor intensive, you'd see higher impacts, and less labor intensive smaller impacts -- except for really hand-intensive produce like raspberries and blackberries. A 10 percent increase in grocery store prices could easily happen."