Unintended Consequences

Everything we do has consequences, things that happen as a result of our actions. Some of those things are planned and are desirable. Some are unintended and can be undesirable or even catastrophic. And as many business owners, farmers and others can tell you, the current climate of antagonism towards immigrants, both legal and non-legal, is already having consequences that are starting to ripple through the country both socially and economically.

I’m not going to talk about the social consequences of what is going on now, there are already people who are doing that far more eloquently than I could. Instead I want to talk about the economic consequences of what is happening now and what will happen if the current administration continues down its present path.

Like it or not, large sectors of the economy are dependent on immigrant labor. The hotel/motel industry, food service, including restaurants and institutional food service, the tourist industry, child care, elder care, custodial and janitorial services, agriculture, all of these industries and more are dependent to one extent or another on immigrant labor. In Wisconsin, state wide about 50% of all agricultural employees are immigrants, mostly from Mexico or Central America. In some parts of the state that number is closer to 80% or even more. And because of this, the crackdown has already started to effect the ag business here in Wisconsin and around the country. (If you want to read about how serious the situation is, jump over to a Wisconsin Public Radio article here.)

Since this blog is (occasionally) farming related, let me stick with the agricultural sector and leave the effects of all of this on other industries to those more qualified to discuss them.

Trying to find people to work on farms and in agriculture in general has always been difficult. The days of being able to hire high school kids to help with the milking or baling hay or whatever are long gone for a variety of reasons. And let’s face it, even back then it wasn’t easy to find farm help. As is generally the case, these so-called ‘golden ages’ when everything was find and dandy before XXXX (insert your favorite conspiracy theory here) got involved and ruined everything, well, those golden ages never existed in the first place. The fact of the matter is that finding reliable help on a farm has always been difficult, and over the years it’s only gotten worse.

Right now about 50% of all workers employed on dairy farms are immigrants. Here in Wisconsin that number is even higher. Around here and in a lot of counties in the state that number is closer to 80%. I know of farms where almost all of their employees are immigrants.

There is an argument that these immigrants are taking jobs that would otherwise have been filled by citizens. But where are these citizens? Even when unemployment was at it’s height during the recession, farmers told me that they never got job applications from local people. None. Even when unemployment was pushing double digits, the only applicants they got were immigrants.

(The fact that us ‘real Americans’ feel that farm work is so demeaning, so degrading, so — so nasty, that we don’t want to work on a farm even as a last resort, is more than a little troubling, and one of these days I might look into that farther, but for now I’ll skip over that and stick to the topic at hand.)

The situation now is even worse when it comes to finding employees. Now the unemployment rate is down to around 3.9% or even less in some parts of the state. Employers at all levels of the economy are having trouble finding employees. And as for agricultural labor, it’s almost impossible to find new employees at all. The idea that there are hundreds and hundreds of ‘real Americans’ waiting in line for these jobs is false. They aren’t. They never were.

While the get tough rhetoric of the current administration makes for good PR in certain political sectors, out here in the real world it’s a different story. Without immigrant labor, the dairy industry here in Wisconsin and in other states, indeed the whole agricultural sector, would collapse. You can’t produce milk without labor. You can’t harvest food without labor. You can’t… Well, you get the idea. Without immigrant labor thousands of farms would have to shut down, food prices would skyrocket, and the whole economy would be disrupted.

So be careful what you wish for. There are often unintended consequences.

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