US agriculture and immigration tied in a knot
CHICAGO (Reuters) – In the debate about how tough the
United States should be on millions of illegal immigrants, Big
Agriculture is warning Americans that the $12 trillion U.S.
economy could be forced to go on a big diet if illegal
immigrants are restricted.
Immigrants have flooded into many industries in what President George W. Bush calls “the jobs Americans don’t want.”
Agriculture is a prime area where mostly Mexican immigrants
have sent down roots so strong that companies may no longer be
able to operate without them.
“To find and deport workers who are in the country right
now would throw a wrench into the economy of the United States
that would leave people in disbelief,” said Dave Ray, spokesman
for the American Meat Institute, a meat industry group.
“What makes food so cheap in the United States is because
we do things efficiently and if you wiped out that efficiency
by creating an unnecessary labor shortage, it essentially will
foist a high food price on to consumers,” Ray said.
The meat production unit of privately held Cargill Inc on
Tuesday said it decided to close down operations at five U.S.
beef plants and two hog plants next Monday.
Cargill, the No. 2 U.S. beef producer and No. 3 pork
producer, will close so employees can participate in mass
rallies scheduled across the country to protest a bill passed
by the U.S. House of Representatives that would erect a fence
along much of the U.S.-Mexico border and declare illegal
“We talked with employees and many wanted to participate in
the May 1 activities. Because we share the concerns of many
employees … we felt it was appropriate to change the
schedules,” said Cargill spokesman Mark Klein.
Similar rallies on April 10 cut U.S. meat production at top
meat producer Tyson Foods Inc. Industry officials say all U.S.
slaughterhouses and meat processing plants depend on immigrant
“What we’ve seen with the mobility of labor, particularly
from Mexico, has enabled that industry to stay in the United
States,” Chris Hurt, agricultural economist at Purdue
University, said of meat processing. “It’s entirely possible
that if labor had not been mobile that parts of the industry
would have to moved to other countries like Mexico.”
MEAT PRODUCTION, BUT MUCH MORE
But production in the multibillion-dollar meat industry,
from farms to processing, is only the tip of the iceberg when
it comes to immigrant labor in U.S. agriculture.
World Perspectives, an agricultural consulting firm,
estimated that 40 percent of all immigrants in the United
States work in agriculture. Of that, 25 to 75 percent of U.S.
farm laborers are “fraudulently documented,” it says.
From crop production to grain and oilseed processing to
turf farms, horticulture and lawn services, Hispanic labor —
legal and illegal — permeates the U.S. countryside.
A recent study by the American Farm Bureau Federation said
a crackdown on illegal immigrant labor could cause production
losses in U.S. agriculture of $5 billion to $9 billion in the
first one to three years and up to $12 billion over four or
Most of the immediate effects would be seen in the fruit
and vegetable sector but problems would be felt everywhere in
the crop and animal-feeding sectors, notably in the Midwest.
“It’s not just a fruit-and-vegetable California problem.
This affects anyone who owns the machines, custom harvests —
virtually these jobs are a 100 percent migrant work force,”
said Austin Perez, policy director for the AFB.
“You find the highest illegal immigration counties are now
in the Midwest,” Perez added.
AFB says that despite heavy use of machines to plant and
harvest the largest U.S. crops — corn, soybeans and wheat —
Midwestern farmers often rely on cheap labor to fill positions
that family members once performed.
The size, concentration and tight margins of industrial
farm production have fueled a continuous demand for cheap labor
to keep the pipeline running.
Dairy operations from a few hundred to many thousands of
cows are round-the-clock milking and feeding jobs. Massive hog
and poultry barns now housing thousands of animals in close
quarters also require constant labor and monitoring in what can
be harsh, unsanitary and dangerous conditions.
So “raids” by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization
Service (INS) can be disruptive, analysts said.
“A few years ago INS did a raid in Nebraska and it messed
up the cattle market. It drove live cattle prices lower —
$1.50 to $2 per hundredweight because there weren’t enough
employees in packing plants to run the cattle through,” said
World Perspectives analyst Dave Juday.