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Immigration Work: Op-Ed Letter

December 1, 2013 at 11:47am

For many decades, America’s fruits and vegetables have been harvested by foreign-born, mostly Hispanic workers.  Long days of physically demanding work have kept many native-born workers away.  Even in the early 1980’s when the economy sank and unemployment skyrocketed to double digits, agricultural work didn’t lure Americans to the fields.

Over the last twenty-five years, a similar phenomenon has spread to other industries.  Restaurant kitchens, hotel and hospitality workers, the construction industry and landscape services are now dominated by a foreign-born workforce. 

I am the general manager of Landscape Art, a Houston area, landscape construction company.  As is the case with most of our industry, our field staff of around 50 is mostly Hispanic and mostly foreign-born.

For the past 15 years, we have utilized the H2B program, which allows us to secure work visas for Mexican and El Salvadorian workers.  Under the requirements of the program, we advertise each year in the “Help Wanted” section of the Houston Chronicle and the Texas Workforce Commission.  The wage rate is set by the Department of Labor and is currently $10.93.  

So…for each of the last 15 years, we have sought American workers first.  Each year we receive responses.  Each year we conduct interviews.  Each year we offer employment to all that show up.  After 15 years of trying, we have two American-born workers as a result of the ads.  I am very proud of Alex and Roy.  They are good workers and solid guys, but we can’t run our company with two field workers.

Two years ago, I visited several Congressional offices in Washington, D.C. with colleagues from the landscape industry along with some agricultural folks.  While there, I met a farmer from San Antonio. 

He needs around 100 people to work his farm for a couple of months.  The labor will be difficult and will involve long hours in the field.  Then, he doesn’t need them until the next crop comes in, so they’ll have to move on to another farm, probably out of state.  Even if the money is good, imagine the person that would accept this lifestyle.  Now imagine 100 of them.  Now imagine that every farm in America that grows hand-harvested crops needs 100.

In 1986 Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act.  The legislation included a small and, ultimately, deficient guest worker program.  Without an adequate legal mechanism, immigration went underground.

Over the last twenty-five years, the United States has adopted an “unofficial”, but massive immigration system.  It starts with the overwhelming need of industries that cannot thrive or even survive, without immigrant labor.   It includes the undeniable force of immigrant people who wish to better their lives by doing hard work that others won’t.  This “overwhelming need” and “undeniable force” have come together to create the present state in America of 11 million undocumented workers.

Our current system is deeply flawed, because it is an “ad hoc” approach rather than a statutory method.  The result is that we have no control.  We don’t know who is coming in.  We don’t know their background.  We know nothing about them.

We can do better. 

We can institute a guest worker program that protects the interests of American workers by always offering the jobs to Americans first.  We can accommodate the needs of farmers, restaurants and other companies, by developing a dynamic guest worker program that is usable and reliable.  We can extend to the immigrants both the rights and responsibilities of being an American worker.  We can offer American citizens the assurance that we know the people coming to our country and that they are contributing both their labor and their taxes.

The details of the program will come from tedious, but important work in Washington.  Many must ponder the particulars of the legislation...but it must be done.  We can’t ride without rules.  We can’t continue with happenstance as our policy.  We can’t allow randomness to determine our workforce.

The details will come from Washington, but the push comes from us.  The will to act comes from us.  The insistence on intelligent legislation comes from us.  We can do better.  We will do better.

December 1, 2013 at 11:47am / Categorized in: General / by Landscape Art / Permalink