As the decades-long immigration crisis makes headlines once again, with tens of thousands of desperate people amassing at our southern border, I want to spend a few minutes considering one maddening statistic.
There’s a disturbing fact buried in Jon Vankin’s explainer about California’s agriculture industry, which is truly one of the Golden State’s great gifts to the nation and the world: Fully 75 percent of the people who work in our most valuable industry (measured in gross revenue) are undocumented immigrants.
Let’s put that fact in context.
- California is by far the most productive state in the nation when it comes to putting food on Americans’ tables. With just 4 percent of the farms, California generates more than 11 percent of US agricultural value—more than $20 billion per year.
- While technological innovation has allowed many aspects of farming to be mechanized, the work of preparing the soil, planting, tending and harvesting crops, and getting all of this food to market, is still extremely labor-intensive.
- The biggest force driving immigration south of our border is the demand for labor, created by the agriculture industry, the hospitality industry, and other elements of our economy that all Californians (and Americans) depend on.
- The only reason so many farmworkers here can be called “illegal immigrants” is that we have not rationalized our laws to deal with this fundamental economic reality.
We have known that our immigration system is out of alignment with our economic needs and our values for a long time. And we have known what to do.
In his 2007 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush called for comprehensive reform of our immigration laws. “We should establish a legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis,” he said. “As a result, they won’t have to try to sneak in, and that will leave Border Agents free to chase down drug smugglers and criminals and terrorists.”
That idea still makes sense, and it’s at the heart of President Joe Biden’s reform proposal. When the House of Representatives last week passed a doomed bill with no such provision, it was opposed by every Democrat and two Republicans. One of those was Rep. John Duarte of Merced, who witnesses the pain caused by the federal government’s failure on this topic in his district.
Duarte’s opposition to the punitive bill, authored and carried by Texas congressmembers, was that it is not a good-faith effort to solve anything, because his colleagues chose ideological posturning over legitimate problem-solving. He said he would have preferred a bill that could “bring some Democratic support and have a chance in the Senate.”
There is still hope that this will be the year that the US Congress will get something done. As the stories below show, the situation’s history is long and the stakes are high.