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Pundit’s Mailbag — A Closer Look At Immigration And How Visas Work

Our piece, Immigration, One Of The Hottest Post-Election Issues, Will Be Brought To the Floor Of The New York Produce Show and Conference, highlighted this upcoming industry discussion as perfectly timed for a new national debate on immigration. We found ourselves in a bit of a quandary in trying to understand what, if anything, would incent Americans to take these jobs and what kind of immigration policy would make immigrants want the jobs.

We have often received thoughtful letters from Dan Cohen, including pieces such as these:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Two Windows And Two Issues

A Choice Had To Be Made: Which Was The Top Priority: Buying Cheap, Buying Regional Or Buying Safe?

Pundit’s Mailbag — National Marketing Orders And Agreements

You May Never Look At Spin The Bottle The Same Way Again

Perishable Thoughts — Higgins Boat Story Tells A Tale Of Perseverance

Setting The Record Straight On Fresh Express’ FreshRinse Wash

So we were pleased to receive a thoughtful inquiry on the immigration issue from Dan:

Before the Bakken (oilfield) play changed the North Dakota economy, I used to get invitations to come up to North Dakota and consider agricultural projects there. If I flew in to Fargo, all other expenses would be covered including rooms, meals, fishing and golf.

Now I still get ‘North Dakota’ magazine sent to me. I was surprised to see that they bring in special temporary workers, largely from Eastern Europe, because they cannot find enough Americans to do the work, despite 8% unemployment nationally.

It is a different life working in Canada or North Dakota on mining and petroleum jobs. Mostly men, living together in ‘man-camps’; in Canada, at least, there are no drugs or alcohol allowed. It’s a little like a tour on an offshore oil platform. You do make good money, but it is a different kind of life, with long work tours alternating with returning home. Probably more restrictive than being a sailor on a ship. It is not for everyone.

The same could be said for farm labor, however. When I worked in Georgia many years ago, they were just developing the concept of greatly increased in-state produce production. As it turned out, when Georgia passed tough anti-illegal immigration laws recently, they lost a lot of their work force. You probably have heard more about this than I have.

My question for you is: why are special visas for Europeans to work in oilfields available, at pretty high salaries, but not special visas for immigrants to work harvesting produce?

I was wondering if this would interest you enough to investigate and, if confirmed, to do a story on it. It might fit with the New York Produce Show and Conference topic.

—Dan Cohen
Maccabee Seed Company
Davis, California

We have a friend who works for a company that is building a number of supermarkets in North Dakota and he describes it as the “Wild West.” There are “man camps,” as Dan describes, and if you can stand up, you can get a job at McDonald’s, which will pay $18 per hour.

The $18 an hour wage is another example of allowing wages to reach market-clearing wages. If they couldn’t attract enough workers at $18 an hour, McDonald’s would offer $19. If McDonald’s could staff fully at $10 an hour, that is what the company would pay.

Obviously these wages impact prices and, quite possibly, the viability of the business. There might be many more McDonald’s in North Dakota if labor were available to McDonald’s at $7 an hour.

As Dan points out, not everyone wants every lifestyle, but compensation – broadly considered including vacation time, etc. — powerfully persuades people to look at various options more seriously. Alternatives matter as well. Many a man, who really didn’t want to do so, went off to the oil platform or the “man camp” because that was the only way to support his family. If welfare or generous family support are options, some people won’t go.

We don’t believe there is a special visa for Europeans to work in the oil industry.

There are numerous visas such as H-1B that apply to persons in specialty occupations — everything from fashion models to jobs requiring advanced degrees. The L visa is for intra-company transfers and the H-2B is for seasonal or temporary nonagricultural workers.

Most of these visa types are limited in quantity each year, and so availability runs out before the end of the year.

In some cases — say computer programmers — there may be a genuine shortage of Americans competent to immediately do the work, but in many cases, the work is defined in such a way that Americans won’t do it.

Country clubs in Florida, for example, do a little ballet with the government. They spend a substantial pre-determined amount on advertising for seasonal workers. They get very few responses but offer interviews to all Americans who respond. Very few show up for the interviews, but they offer jobs to every American who shows up for the interview, subject to a drug screening. Very few show up for the drug test and even fewer pass. Fewer still actually show up for work, and most of them quit soon thereafter.

Based on all this, the government allows them to bring in a large group of South Africans to work the restaurants. They are mostly young students, and they have a great time while working a few months in America.

Is it really true that no Americans will be waiters? Of course not, but seasonal work is not what most permanent residents want, and the seasonal wage offered is not sufficient to induce Americans to accept seasonal work.

It is clear that many Republicans will be anxious to not be seen as hostile to Latinos and so will be more than willing to vote favorably on amnesty and, perhaps, expanded legal immigration. But this inclination does not seem to automatically translate into support for a guest-worker program for agriculture.

How the industry plays this hand will likely determine the farm labor situation for many years to come.

Many thanks to Dan Cohen for helping us deal with this most important issue.


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