Watch: Americans’ Machines vs. Stoop-Labor Farm Migrants

Mexican farm workers harvest celery in a field of Brawley, California, in the Imperial Valley, on January 31, 2017. Many of the farm workers expressed fears that they would not be able to continue working in the United States under the President Trump's administration.
Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images

Progressives romanticize the nation’s shameful reliance on stoop-labor migrants to harvest food for wealthy Americans, even during the coronavirus epidemic, says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Prosperous progressives defend the stoop labor, he said:

They tell themselves, they try to delude themselves … they really believe that is just a [generational] phase and the [migrants’] children will all move into the middle class. The other reason is their reflexive support for open borders and immigration in principle – [and] if they were to criticize corporate exploitation of immigrants, that would suggest that maybe mass immigration has downsides, and that is something the modern progressive can’t accept. It is immigration uber alles.

But the nation has to move past this stoop-labor exploitation, he said. “Government should provide carrots — as well as sticks — to make farm companies invest in labor-saving, hygenic farm machinery,” he added.

“There’s nothing that can’t be automated — there’s no crop whose harvest cannot be mechanized,” he said, adding:

That does not necessarily mean it is economical to do it, and there may be certain delicate products that cannot be mechanized or where it would not be worth the money. But for most crops, the machines already exist — it just a question of incentives for the farms to move to mechanized harvesting.

What both the H-2A [guest worker program] and the easy access to illegals do is reduce the incentive for farms to switch over to these higher productivity, less labor-intensive methods of harvesting. It is perfectly rational not to spend $800,000 on a [harvesting] machine if you’ve got access to all of this cheap labor, whether it is [H-2A] visa workers or illegal workers.

The progressives’ romantic sympathy for the migrants obscures the backbreaking and low-wage work performed by the migrants — as well as the efficiency and cleanliness of the high-tech harvesting gear.

For example, the United Farm Workers union showcase the hard work of its migrant members in picking radishes from the ground, one handful after another — but the internet offers many videos of American and European labor-saving harvesting machines that most farms are reluctant to adopt.


In contrast, modern countries use efficient and clear harvesting gear:

On April 1, President Donald Trump defended his decision to restart the inflow of more than 250,000 H-2A visa workers for farm companies. He said:

We want the farmers to be able to get people that have been working those farms for years, or we’re not going to have farms. So they’re going to come in. And they’re going to be given a certain pass and we’re going to check them very, very closely — especially over the next month, because remember after a month or so once this passes, we’re not going to have to be, hopefully, worried too much about the virus … I’ve given a commitment that they’re going to continue to come or we’re not going to have any farmers.

Trump’s decision is mostly a political decision in the economic crash amid the coronavirus epidemic. He doesn’t want to anger 40 senators, nor the huge number of farm companies across the Midwest.

But the danger epidemic underlines the risk created by the farms’ economic dependence on just-in-time migrant labor, Krikorian said.

Our dependence on foreign labor in agriculture is specifically being referred to by the State Department as a national security issue. That weakness is paralleled by our dependence on Chinese pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.

If importing foreign labor for agriculture is so important that, even in this emergency, we have to waive the rules to let them in, we better fix that once this present emergency is past. It is a vulnerability that we rely on cheap labor from abroad.

The need to recognize the problem is not meant to insult the hardworking migrants, Krikorian said. “None of this is derogatory about the workers — they’re people like everyone else. Clearly, they are working hard, and they are just taking advantage of the [flawed] system we’ve created … but this is a mistaken policy that leaves us vulnerable.”


Some left-wing groups recognize the problem and are urging government and farms to shift from stoop labor to high-tech machinery. Breitbart News reported April 3:

“The most important thing farm employers should do now is devise safety plans and procedures and procure additional safety and sanitation equipment,” EPI researchers Daniel Costa and Philip Martin write. “In order to keep healthy, farmworkers need access to masks, gloves, and other safety equipment, as well as ways to disinfect their hands, tools, clothing, and machinery.”


But many farms are reluctant to bet the farm on new-fangled machinery instead of what they trust — the hidden and highly organized delivery of willing migrant workers, year after year. The New York Times spotlighted their reluctance to modernize in a sympathetic article about the migrant workers:

“It’s sad that it takes a health crisis like this to highlight the farmworkers’ importance,” said Hector Lujan, chief executive of Reiter Brothers, a large family-owned berry grower based in Oxnard, Calif., that also has operations in Florida and the Pacific Northwest.

Mr. Lujan, whose company employs thousands of field workers, described them as unsung heroes for guaranteeing that Americans have food security.

“Maybe one of the benefits of this crisis is that they are recognized and come out of the shadows,” said Mr. Lujan, whose company has been lobbying Congress to pass a bill that would legalize immigrant farmworkers.

The NYT article devoted a short clause to the long-standing alternative of farm mechanization and much more space to the call by a union leader for more for government support of the stoop laborers:

Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers, said that letters affirming that workers are “essential” do not substitute for “meaningful steps to stem the pandemic by protecting farmworkers with basic actions.” Those would include, he said, extending sick leave to 40 hours or more, making it easier for workers to claim sick days and providing more aggressive disinfection of work areas.


“The government’s role is not hectoring farms — but creating the conditions within which farms will have an incentive to move towards mechanization — no H-2As, tougher enforcement to limit illegals and I’m open to the idea of a loan guarantee or subsidized loans,” he said.

“There has to be a carrot, as well as a stick, to make it easier, especially for small operators,” he said.


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