I have to admit, I've always discounted the argument by advocates for illegal immigrants (or 'undocumented workers', as they euphemistically refer to them) that "they're only doing the jobs Americans won't do". Unfortunately, it appears there may be more than a little truth to that argument, according to this report from Bloomberg Businessweek.
Skinning, gutting, and cutting up catfish is not easy or pleasant work. No one knows this better than Randy Rhodes, president of Harvest Select, which has a processing plant in impoverished Uniontown, Ala. For years, Rhodes has had trouble finding Americans willing to grab a knife and stand 10 or more hours a day in a cold, wet room for minimum wage and skimpy benefits.
Most of his employees are Guatemalan. Or they were, until Alabama enacted an immigration law in September that requires police to question people they suspect might be in the U.S. illegally and punish businesses that hire them. The law, known as HB56, is intended to scare off undocumented workers, and in that regard it’s been a success. It’s also driven away legal immigrants who feared being harassed.
Rhodes arrived at work on Sept. 29, the day the law went into effect, to discover many of his employees missing. Panicked, he drove an hour and a half north to Tuscaloosa, where many of the immigrants who worked for him lived. Rhodes, who doesn’t speak Spanish, struggled to get across how much he needed them. He urged his workers to come back. Only a handful did. “We couldn’t explain to them that some of the things they were scared of weren’t going to happen,” Rhodes says. “I wanted them to see that I was their friend, and that we were trying to do the right thing.”
His ex-employees joined an exodus of thousands of immigrant field hands, hotel housekeepers, dishwashers, chicken plant employees, and construction workers who have fled Alabama for other states. Like Rhodes, many employers who lost workers followed federal requirements—some even used the E-Verify system—and only found out their workers were illegal when they disappeared.
In their wake are thousands of vacant positions and hundreds of angry business owners staring at unpicked tomatoes, uncleaned fish, and unmade beds. “Somebody has to figure this out. The immigrants aren’t coming back to Alabama—they’re gone,” Rhodes says. “I have 158 jobs, and I need to give them to somebody.”
There’s no shortage of people he could give those jobs to. In Alabama, some 211,000 people are out of work. In rural Perry County, where Harvest Select is located, the unemployment rate is 18.2 percent, twice the national average. One of the big selling points of the immigration law was that it would free up jobs that Republican Governor Robert Bentley said immigrants had stolen from recession-battered Americans. Yet native Alabamians have not come running to fill these newly liberated positions.
. . .
Why try to make Americans do this work when they clearly don’t want it? “They come one day, and don’t show up the next,” Castro says.
It’s a common complaint in this part of Alabama. A few miles down the road, Chad Smith and a few other farmers sit on chairs outside J&J Farms, venting about their changed fortunes. Smith, 22, says his 85 acres of tomatoes are only partly picked because 30 of the 35 migrant workers who had been with him for years left when the law went into effect. The state’s efforts to help him and other farmers attract Americans are a joke, as far as he is concerned. “Oh, I tried to hire them,” Smith says. “I put a radio ad out—out of Birmingham. About 15 to 20 people showed up, and most of them quit. They couldn’t work fast enough to make the money they thought they could make, so they just quit.”
Joey Bearden, who owns a 30-acre farm nearby, waits for his turn to speak. “The governor stepped in and started this bill because he wants to put people back to work—they’re not coming!” says Bearden. “I’ve been farming 25 years, and I can count on my hand the number of Americans that stuck.”
It’s a hard-to-resist syllogism: Dirty jobs are available; Americans won’t fill them; thus, Americans are too soft for dirty jobs. Why else would so many unemployed people turn down the opportunity to work during a recession? Of course, there’s an equally compelling obverse. Why should farmers and plant owners expect people to take a back-breaking seasonal job with low pay and no benefits just because they happen to be offering it? If no one wants an available job — especially in extreme times — maybe the fault doesn’t rest entirely with the people turning it down. Maybe the market is inefficient.
Tom Surtees is tired of hearing employers grouse about their lazy countrymen. “Don’t tell me an Alabamian can’t work out in the field picking produce because it’s hot and labor intensive,” he says. “Go into a steel mill. Go into a foundry. Go into numerous other occupations and tell them Alabamians don’t like this work because it’s hot and it requires manual labor.” The difference being, jobs in Alabama’s foundries and steel mills pay better wages — with benefits. “If you’re trying to justify paying someone below whatever an appropriate wage level is so you can bring your product, I don’t think that’s a valid argument,” Surtees says.
. . .
The notion of jobs in fields and food plants as “immigrant work” is relatively new. As late as the 1940s, most farm labor in Alabama and elsewhere was done by Americans. During World War II the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to import temporary workers to ease labor shortages. Four and a half million Mexican guest workers crossed the border. At first most went to farms and orchards in California; by the program’s completion in 1964 they were working in almost every state. Many braceros — the term translates to “strong-arm,” as in someone who works with his arms — were granted green cards, became permanent residents, and continued to work in agriculture. Native-born Americans never returned to the fields. “Agricultural labor is basically 100 percent an immigrant job category,” says Princeton University sociologist Doug Massey, who studies population migration. “Once an occupational category becomes dominated by immigrants, it becomes very difficult to erase the stigma.”
Massey says Americans didn’t turn away from the work merely because it was hard or because of the pay but because they had come to think of it as beneath them. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the job itself,” he says. In other countries, citizens refuse to take jobs that Americans compete for. In Europe, Massey says, “auto manufacturing is an immigrant job category. Whereas in the States, it’s a native category.”
There's more at the link. I highly recommend reading the whole article to get a broader perspective on the problem.
I don't pretend to have all the answers here. I'm an immigrant myself (although a legal one), and I strongly support preventing illegal immigration and evicting those who come here illegally. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a real need for a legal 'guest worker' program, to provide work visas for laborers like those referenced in the article. I totally agree that we've got to improve border security and get rid of illegal aliens - but we also, simultaneously, need to address the other half of the equation, otherwise we're simply going to create more problems than we solve.
I also believe that welfare benefits need to be structured so that it isn't more profitable for the unemployed to live on them rather than go out and find work, no matter how hard or unpleasant it may be. I suspect a large part of the reason that American workers don't want these jobs is that they can afford to turn them down, thanks to the social 'safety net' provided by the burgeoning 'welfare state' and entitlement programs. If we could get people back to work, those programs could be cut back to more reasonable levels.
What say you, readers?