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If we don’t want the undocumented to drive, are we ready to pay more?

Rod Watson

If it ticks you off that Albany seems about to offer driver’s licenses to undocumented workers, maybe you should ask yourself a fundamental question: How much more am I willing to pay to get native-born citizens to "do the jobs Americans won’t do"?

It wouldn’t cost that much, for instance, to raise farm wages significantly.

But even then, some experts say, it might not make a difference.

Though we’ve long heard that immigrants do what the native-born won’t do, I’ve always considered that a crock. The more accurate statement, it seems, is "Immigrants do the jobs Americans won’t do at the wages being offered."

Raise the wage, let the laws of supply and demand kick in – undistorted by the undocumented population – and you’ll get all of the workers you need, right?

It wouldn’t cost that much to put that proposition to the test.

In fact, "There Are No Jobs Americans Won’t Do," according to a paper with that title by Steven A. Camarota and some colleagues at the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled an anti-immigrant hate group. PolitiFact, however, which has quoted the group, looked into the claim and concluded it was based on past associations, not the center’s current work.

Push for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants intensifies at Capitol

The jobs study includes a list of some 470 occupations broken down by native share, immigrant share and illegal immigrant share. In only six of the occupations do immigrants of all types outnumber native-born Americans, and "you can’t find any occupations that are close to a majority illegal immigrant," Camarota said, arguing that lots of Americans already are doing these jobs.

Agriculture, an important industry here even though it accounts for less than 1% of the nation’s labor force, is one of the occupations in which immigrants make up more than half – 51% – and undocumented workers account for about 28%, according to the study.

So how much would it cost consumers if we raised wages to attract more Americans to fill those jobs?

Camarota cites a head of lettuce as an example. He estimated about 18% to 20% of that cost makes it back to the farm and about a third of that goes to the worker who picked it. That means raising farm worker wages by a whopping 50% –  from about $14 an hour to $21 an hour – would add about 3% to the cost of a head of lettuce.

Are you willing to pay a nickel more for lettuce to lure more Americans to pick it?

In meat and poultry processing, about 7% to 8% goes to the worker, Camarota said. That means a 50% wage hike would add about 4% to the cost of your steak or chicken.

Given how little of the price paid for such products goes to the low-end workers who produce them, "their wages could rise substantially without sparking inflation," Camarota said.

But he notes that wages are not the only issue, citing social values, substance abuse and other cultural factors that prevent Americans from taking these jobs.

And when it come to farming, there’s also the nature of the work itself.

"I don’t think it’s the money," said Mary Jo Dudley, director of Cornell University’s Farmworker Program, who noted that the farm minimum already is gradually rising along with the state’s minimum wage.

She said a colleague interviewed people leaving an unemployment office, and they were thumbs down on taking a job in agriculture. In a 2017 study her program conducted, New York farmers said "they were unable to find and keep reliable U.S. citizens to do the jobs. That’s in part because farm work can be physically demanding, dirty and socially denigrated work. More importantly, it’s one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S."

That jibes with a 2013 study she pointed to by the Partnership For a New American Economy and the Center for Global Development that  looked at what happened in North Carolina in 2011 when that state had 489,000 people on its unemployment rolls. Despite needing work, only 268 of them applied for the 6,500 available farm jobs. Of the 245 hired, only 163 showed up on the first day and only seven completed the growing season.

"It’s not the most sought-after employment, for sure," said Dudley, part of whose job involves meeting with New York’s undocumented workers and the farmers who employ them. "So it’s not just a matter of putting more money into it."

She also noted that farm workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which means they don’t get overtime pay – despite often working 50 to 60 hours a week – and can’t collectively bargain.

No wonder it’s hard to find enough Americans to fill all of the jobs.

As long as we can’t, and we use immigrants to cover for our unwillingness to find ways to put low-skill Americans to work, it makes sense to let the undocumented apply for driver’s licenses and reap the revenue that would bring.

It’s also the moral thing to do. As Dudley notes, they work in rural areas without public transportation and need ways to get their kids to the doctor, attend parent-teacher conferences and do all of the other things other workers do.

And if that idea offends, then put the whole issue to the test: Raise wages substantially and put the cost on consumers – not farm owners – and see how strongly we really feel about luring American to do the work the rest of us don't want to do.



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