Agribusiness' Dirty Secret
by A.V. Krebs
Des Moines, Iowa
Lost amidst the 1996 Presidential campaign rhetoric and the political
posturing in Congress is the fact that the illegal immigration issue has
historically and remains even today agribusiness's dirty little secret.
From the blueberry fields of Maine to the poultry processing plants of the
Delmarva region on the Mid-Atlantic Coast, from the tobacco fields of North
Carolina to the corn fields of Iowa, from the kill floors of the beef packing
plants of Nebraska, to the fruit and vegetable fields of California's fertile
valleys, immigrants - the vast majority of them believed to be illegal -
have and continue to supply agribusiness with cheap, docile, unorganized
In addition, agribusiness in its single-minded pursuit of such labor, particularly
in the U.S. Southwest, has historically instigated, encouraged and sanctioned
Paradoxically, when politicians and social commentators today discuss the
"immigration crisis" it is almost always in terms of the Mexican
border, with scant attention paid to those thousands of legal and illegal
immigrants coming into the United States from other parts of the world.
For the moment, however, let's put aside the question of who really are
"illegal" immigrants on territory that now comprises one third
of the U.S. land mass and which once in fact belonged to Mexico prior to
the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848.
Here was land literally stolen from the Mexican people by a handful of thievish
land barons in what land reformer Henry George once described as "a
history of greed, of perjury, of corruption, of spoliation and high-handed
robbery for which it will be difficult to find a parallel."
The long-term consequences of such action was that, in the words of Ernesto
Galarza, author of the classic Merchants of Labor, the Treaty left "the
toilers on one side of the border, the capital and the best land on the
Therefore, it is no accident that throughout U.S. history the chronic areas
of rural poverty have remained the South, where the plantation system has
dominated the agricultural scene, and the Southwest, where vast tracts of
productive land have remained in the hands of a privileged few through the
Clearly, U.S. agribusiness can say of illegal immigrants that they are the
"slaves we rent." When G.C. Hanna of the Department of Vegetable
Crops, University of California-Davis, explained why he had undertaken the
development of a tomato for processing and canning that could be harvested
by a machine, he observed:
"I had gotten interested in the history of asparagus in California
and I found that the first asparagus cutters were Chinese and the second
group was Japanese. Then we had immigrating Italians and Portuguese, then
the Hindus and then the Filipinos in the 1940's. And then I got to looking
at the rest of our agricultural labor and I found out that most were imported
nationalities and we were running out of nationalities to import."
A recent example of the hypocrisy that has surrounded the influx of "illegals,"
now publicly being decried in Congress and in our statehouses, is the current
legislative effort to grant "temporary" visas to some 250,000
foreign farm workers.
This so-called "guest worker" program is but one more effort by
corporate agribusiness to revive what three decades ago was called the bracero
program which allowed over four million Mexican contract workers into the
U.S. from 1942 to 1964 as part of a World War II "emergency" work
Such an attempt to revive the "guest worker" program was made
unsuccessfully in 1984 in a bill co-sponsored by then-U.S. Senator Pete
Wilson of California. In 1986 Wilson would also champion immigration legislation
which facilitated a continuing supply of more than a million inexpensive
It should be no surprise, therefore, that in light of this vast, cheap labor
pool available to agribusiness, that Wilson as a U.S. Senator, according
to the National Library on Money in Politics, received some $357,734 from
agribusiness-oriented political action committees.
Although Wilson argued that his provision "would guarantee decent housing,
workmen's compensation, and other benefits for the seasonal farm worker"
U.S. Labor Dept. statistics show that more than one million farm workers
and their families already live below the poverty line, three-quarters of
them receiving no government assistance. Two-thirds of all migrant farm
workers, and fully one-half of settled farm workers, now earn poverty-level
Consequent to Wilson's 1986 legislation, immigration officials have estimated
that between 30-70% of foreign farm workers in the U.S. obtained their jobs
using fraudulent documents. At the same time the U.S. Labor Department has
estimated that at any given time, 12%, or at least 190,000 domestic farm
workers, are out of a job.
Not so ironic, this is the same Pete Wilson who as California governor recently
vigorously (and successfully) campaigned for the passage of the state's
Proposition 187. Unless overturned by the courts, the law will strip illegal
aliens of health and welfare benefits and deny schooling to their children.
Reflecting on Wilson's effort, Katie Leishman, writing in the New York
Times, wonders what might have happened if the election had taken place
at a major harvest time when half the state's farm labor force was made
up of illegals? "Farmworkers took part in freedom marches and scattered
demonstrations, to no effect; a series of harvest strikes would have been
a different matter. Latino leaders often resort to lyrical reminders of
how handsomely Mexicans treated those who stole California from them. This
kind of cant goes nowhere; but if Cesar Chavez were alive, he would have
taken the debate right to the bottom line."
As Wilson's fellow GOP conservative William Bennett notes: "California
draws in thousands of migrant (agricultural) workers each year, then complains
that some stay. The message is: Come for a few months, then get out. That's
not a sensible way to conduct policy."
Yet, as Philip Martin, the University of California agricultural labor scholar,
points out, "there's nothing as permanent as a temporary worker."
Bernard E. Anderson, the U.S. Department of Labor's Assistant Secretary
for Employment Standards, adds, "guest worker programs are often abusive
and invariably lead to expanded, not diminished levels of permanent immigration."
Lost in all the political demagoguery surrounding the illegal immigration
issue today, however, is the simple fact, as Gustavo De La Vina, chief agent
of the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego points out, "they are coming
across to get jobs."
From the fields, to the packing sheds, to the food processing factories
of U.S. agribusiness this seeming lure of jobs for people already living
in near destitution in their own economically ravaged country continues
to fuel our nation's influx of illegal immigration.
In a country where the currency has lost about half its value against the
dollar since the peso was devalued in December 1994, interest rates have
soared, bankruptcies have multiplied and over one million people have been
forced out of work, as paying jobs have become highly prized.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, throughout Mexico - a country
where 26% of workers are either unemployed or without full-time jobs - doctors,
lawyers, engineers, teachers and other professionals are crossing the border
to wait on tables, filling lowly clerical jobs or harvesting American crops.
In that process many of them must brave the New River, near Calexico, California.
Across a river covered with white suds, raw sewage from homes in Mexico,
industrial waste from U.S.-owned factories in Mexico and chemical poison
runoffs from nearby fields, they come. Border Patrol Agent Bleu Siders describes
the scene: "It's one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Aliens
go in this river, we have to go after them."
Such cheap labor no matter what their background, however, have always been
welcomed by agribusiness. As Jack Snider, boss of the asparagus packing
shed at Black Dog Farms in Holtville, Calif., who has supervised Mexican
professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, told the Wall Street Journal:
"I love professionals. They can diagnose you while you work."
It is no coincidence that more than 70% of legal and illegal immigrants
in the U.S. now live in California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey
and Illinois, all major agricultural producing states. Likewise, it is also
no coincidence that a mere 139,560 farms of the nation's total 1.925 million
farms have over 77% of the total U.S. agricultural labor expenses.
It is just not the fields and orchards of the U.S. that draw illegal immigrants,
but in recent years there has been a marked increase in their number in
the meat and poultry slaughter-houses of the Midwest.
In September 1995, 90 such illegals were arrested in a ConAgra beef packing
plant in Garden City, Kansas and in March 125 were arrested at a similar
Cargill plant in Schuyler, Nebraska.
Northwestrn Arkansas, where such agribusiness giants as Tyson Foods, Hudson
Foods, ConAgra and Simmons Industries have major poultry operations, has
seen an increase of over 30,000 Hispanic workers just in the past few years
attracted by jobs that pay between $6-$7 an hour.
A U.S. government-sponsored Operation South PAW (Protecting American Workers)
in September 1995 alone netted some 2,000 illegal aliens across the South.
It is estimated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that
such raids channeled more than $3 million in wages back to U.S. workers.
Today, agribusiness both exploits and blames immigrant workers for many
of the social ills which pervade our society. But, as John Palacio of the
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) explains, "Immigrants
take jobs Americans don't want. They are not only blamed for economic ills,
but exploited for cheap labor. But they contribute much more than they receive."
One 1995 study, sponsored by the Cato Institute, a "libertarian research
group," found that each year the average immigrant family adds about
$2,500 in taxes to the economy above what it consumes in public costs.
Yet, amidst all the controversy and recent federal and state law making
as it applies to immigrants, one important study which gets to the heart
of the matter has been all but ignored by the public. In 1992 a bipartisan
Commission on Agricultural workers, created by Congress, set forth six recommendations
(See accompanying box) designed to improve the working conditions for the
nation's farm workers.
As their report indicates, it's time that the public understand that the
social burden cheap farm labor brings to rural and urban communities should
be placed where many economists believe it should be - in the cost of the
It is time that we acknowledge, as Dan Rather did on CBS-TV's recent documentary
"Legacy of Shame", "the brutal human price to be paid for
our food," and that we put an end to a system that takes for granted
the exploitation of men, women and children for the sake of the so-called
"world's cheapest food supply."
Philip Martin, for example, notes in this regard that if the wages of all
agricultural workers were doubled, the cost of California produce would
rise approximately only 10 percent. This would cost the government nothing,
but would increase tax revenues by increasing taxable income at the same
time it would lower welfare costs by decreasing the number of families seeking
government need-based services.
Also important is the fact that the public needs to recognize that the cheap
wages paid to farm laborers and the cheap raw material prices paid to farmers
are only enriching the coffers of a select few transnational food manufacturing
corporations. Meanwhile, the society as a whole is left to pay an exacting
social and economic cost for such exploitation.
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project
and author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness (Essential
The Commission on Agricultural Workers Recommendations
- To curb illegal immigration improve border controls, internal apprehension
mechanisms and enforcement of employer sanctions. Develop a fraud-proof
work authorization document.
- In the face of a surplus of farm workers, discontinue the Replenishment
Agricultural Worker (RAW) program that lets growers recruit new immigrants.
- Require the U.S. Labor Department's job placement service to aid in
placing farm workers in jobs to help them remain employed longer during
- Tighten regulation of farm labor contractors, or crew leaders, who recruit
and manage many farm workers and have traditionally paid them less than
other farm workers.
- Make growers liable for claims against the labor contractors they use.
To improve the appeal of agricultural jobs, grant farm workers the same
rights as other U.S. workers: unemployment insurance, workers' compensation
insurance, overtime pay, union organizing, and the right bargain collectively
with their employer.
- Assure farm workers' children the same opportunities for health care,
education and day care provided children of other workers.