January, 2012

Fruits of Thought

Weighing In On Immigration

There is little doubt that immigration is the great issue that will determine the shape of the produce industry's future. It is widely acknowledged that production depends heavily on illegal immigrants, and the recent "Silent Raids" on Chipotle have shown how important illegal immigrants are to the customer base.

 Yet immigration reform is one of the most difficult issues to resolve. Part of this is because of a breakdown in trust. Over the years, there have been many immigration laws and many initiatives to block entry for illegals. Yet, in the end, there has been no serious and sustained effort on the part of the Federal Government to enforce the law. As a result, compromise with those looking to restrict immigration or those looking to ensure all immigrants are legal is almost impossible. That is why we have more than ten million illegal aliens in the country.

What many politicians don’t seem to realize is that the various initiatives such as whether illegal aliens getting drivers licenses or in-state college tuition perplex citizens because if government officials know that someone is here illegally, the expectation is that they will call the police and have them detained, not that they will register them for school. Indeed Rick Perry's campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination has floundered, partly because Mitt Romney took an obscure issue related to Governor Perry's willingness to provide in-state tuition to illegals and promoted that until Governor Perry no longer seemed a viable option for many conservatives.

 The President's focus on raiding businesses such as Chipotle is a way of playing both sides of the issue. On the one hand, these immigrants are mostly Democratic voters and so the political imperative is to legalize them and get them registered. On the other hand the unions, an important Democratic constituency, want to avoid the competition with additional labor from other countries. So you have this kind of half-hearted effort where they make Chipotle fire the workers - this gets Union support - but they don't actually deport the people - thus preserving the future voter base.

 The reality, of course, is that union protests aside, actually ending illegal immigration unless accompanied by increased legal immigration or guest-worker programs, would be a transformational decision. There would be a substantial reduction in the availability of low wage workers, and this would lead to many changes, including a shift of production agriculture to outside the country.  Although Chipotle's Co-CEO Monty Moran was recently the subject of a Wall Street Journal profile that focused on his efforts to have Washington "Fix Immigration," one suspects that restrictions on illegal aliens would probably benefit quick-service restaurants, such as Chipotle, as full service restaurants are more labor intensive.

The produce trade's efforts have primarily been focused on extricating produce issues from the immigration mess and getting a separate guest-worker program. It would be a neat trick if it could be pulled off. The problem, of course, is that a guest-worker program for agriculture doesn't solve Chipotle's problem, and so it is difficult to build a coalition strong enough to pass such a bill. Which is why it hasn't happened.

There is a substantial argument that we should allow much larger legal immigration. In the end it si reasonable to assume that a  larger, younger population will create a country better able to maintain its preeminence in the world and also it is reasonable to assume that a more preeminent country is better able to protect its interest in the world and thus to prosper.

There are several problems with this approach: First, it is a big-picture, long term perspective and thus hard to sell politically. Second, legal immigration would have to expand significantly for it to bring a lot of workers to areas such as produce harvesting as legal workers have more options for employment. Third, the long term benefit of immigration depends heavily on the immigrants being a productive and civic-minded force in society. Many who have no ill will toward immigrants feel that the culture in the United States has changed in such a way that we are unwilling to demand this of immigrants.

 Part of this is financial -- a fear that immigrants will take benefits such as Medicaid or food stamps. Part of it is cultural -- that the United States is unwilling to have educational and other policies to encourage a melting pot, such as mandating English.

 This is why the trend in policy in this area is to encourage more legal immigration but only among those selected either for their ability to invest or for certain educational credentials. This is really a way of avoiding the question of how do you treat the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" by not accepting many who are "tempest-tossed" and, instead, just accepting those who are already successful.

Politically, the issue often focuses on the illegal aliens who are already in the United States, but the Constitution provides a long term solution to that problem. Any child born in the United States is a citizen, so all illegal aliens will either leave the country or have their family lines eventually legalized as the older generation dies off. 

Normally, industry associations look for narrow ways to promote the interests of their industry, but it seems that immigration is such a complex and important subject that we will either reach a new consensus on the kind of America we want to have, or we will muddle through with the existing laws.  Details aside, there is a choice between an aging and smaller country and a younger, growing and more dynamic society. Let us hope the industry weighs in on the right side of that choice.