April 26, 2006

US Agriculture and Immigration Tied in a Knot

By Christine Stebbins

CHICAGO -- In the debate about how tough the United States should be on millions of illegal immigrants, Big Agriculture is warning Americans that the $12 trillion U.S. economy could be forced to go on a big diet if illegal immigrants are restricted.

Immigrants have flooded into many industries in what President George W. Bush calls "the jobs Americans don't want." Agriculture is a prime area where mostly Mexican immigrants have sent down roots so strong that companies may no longer be able to operate without them.

"To find and deport workers who are in the country right now would throw a wrench into the economy of the United States that would leave people in disbelief," said Dave Ray, spokesman for the American Meat Institute, a meat industry group.

"What makes food so cheap in the United States is because we do things efficiently and if you wiped out that efficiency by creating an unnecessary labor shortage, it essentially will foist a high food price on to consumers," Ray said.

The meat production unit of privately held Cargill Inc on Tuesday said it decided to close down operations at five U.S. beef plants and two hog plants next Monday.

Cargill, the No. 2 U.S. beef producer and No. 3 pork producer, will close so employees can participate in mass rallies scheduled across the country to protest a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives that would erect a fence along much of the U.S.-Mexico border and declare illegal immigrants felons.

"We talked with employees and many wanted to participate in the May 1 activities. Because we share the concerns of many employees ... we felt it was appropriate to change the schedules," said Cargill spokesman Mark Klein.

Similar rallies on April 10 cut U.S. meat production at top meat producer Tyson Foods Inc. Industry officials say all U.S. slaughterhouses and meat processing plants depend on immigrant labor.

"What we've seen with the mobility of labor, particularly from Mexico, has enabled that industry to stay in the United States," Chris Hurt, agricultural economist at Purdue University, said of meat processing. "It's entirely possible that if labor had not been mobile that parts of the industry would have to moved to other countries like Mexico."


But production in the multibillion-dollar meat industry, from farms to processing, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to immigrant labor in U.S. agriculture.

World Perspectives, an agricultural consulting firm, estimated that 40 percent of all immigrants in the United States work in agriculture. Of that, 25 to 75 percent of U.S. farm laborers are "fraudulently documented," it says.

From crop production to grain and oilseed processing to turf farms, horticulture and lawn services, Hispanic labor -- legal and illegal -- permeates the U.S. countryside.

A recent study by the American Farm Bureau Federation said a crackdown on illegal immigrant labor could cause production losses in U.S. agriculture of $5 billion to $9 billion in the first one to three years and up to $12 billion over four or more years.

Most of the immediate effects would be seen in the fruit and vegetable sector but problems would be felt everywhere in the crop and animal-feeding sectors, notably in the Midwest.

"It's not just a fruit-and-vegetable California problem. This affects anyone who owns the machines, custom harvests -- virtually these jobs are a 100 percent migrant work force," said Austin Perez, policy director for the AFB.

"You find the highest illegal immigration counties are now in the Midwest," Perez added.

AFB says that despite heavy use of machines to plant and harvest the largest U.S. crops -- corn, soybeans and wheat -- Midwestern farmers often rely on cheap labor to fill positions that family members once performed.

The size, concentration and tight margins of industrial farm production have fueled a continuous demand for cheap labor to keep the pipeline running.

Dairy operations from a few hundred to many thousands of cows are round-the-clock milking and feeding jobs. Massive hog and poultry barns now housing thousands of animals in close quarters also require constant labor and monitoring in what can be harsh, unsanitary and dangerous conditions.

So "raids" by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) can be disruptive, analysts said.

"A few years ago INS did a raid in Nebraska and it messed up the cattle market. It drove live cattle prices lower -- $1.50 to $2 per hundredweight because there weren't enough employees in packing plants to run the cattle through," said World Perspectives analyst Dave Juday.