Editorial: Expand legal paths for immigrants to live and work in the U.S.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 27, 2017

Among the nearly 100 legal migrants performing vital farm work in the Pioneer Valley this growing season is 73-year-old Lloyd Coke of Jamaica. He has toiled in our orchards for 42 years because local growers can’t find Americans willing to put in the tough physical labor required to put peaches on our tables.

There was a time when plenty of local people, like teens looking for summer and part-time jobs, would sweat in the tobacco fields of Sunderland and Whately or the orchards of the western hills. These days, growers say, that is a rarity — so they turn to immigrant workers.

The 30-year-old federal H-2A visa program for temporary farmworkers requires growers to first advertise their available positions in local newspapers, giving Americans first dibs. But growers say very few American workers apply and fewer last a week on the job.

This year, 94 farmworkers were placed in Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties through the H-2A program, according to Kristen Wilmer of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield.

Jamaicans like Coke have a strong incentive. He can earn at least $12.38 per hour — a wage set by the U.S. Department of Labor for this kind of work. That is roughly twice what he can earn back home.

Chip Hager of Hager’s Farm Market in Shelburne Falls says there aren’t enough local people willing to do the work no matter how high the unemployment rate.

“People don’t want to do the kind of work that farmers need done,” Hager says. “It’s not an easy job … That’s why so many families hire Jamaicans. That’s why Mexicans and other people are here … It’s a shame that the system can’t be set up to encourage people to take these harvest jobs.”

We hear so much vitriol these days aimed at illegal immigrants who have come to the United States seeking work, and finding a better life. President Trump and his mostly Republican allies, argue that these people should have come to our shores through legal channels — like Lloyd Coke did. But they also complain that immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans. While we might agree migrants should come to our shores legally, we’re not convinced they are “stealing” jobs from anyone.

The president has made cracking down on illegal immigrants a hallmark of his administration. But the president also has vowed to make changes to the legal immigration system, arguing that even the legal immigrants compete with Americans for much-needed jobs and drive wages down.

The experience of local growers and H-2A visa holders suggests the opposite. These foreign-born workers are not hurting the American economy; they are helping it.

Most economists dispute the flat assertion that immigrant workers, both legal and undocumented, are harming job prospects for American workers. They note that immigration in recent decades doesn’t appear to have meaningfully hurt wages in the long run. Increased immigration is also associated with faster growth because the country is adding workers overall, so that reducing the number of immigrants could slow the economy’s potential to expand.

Many industries in the West and South, including hospitality and farming businesses, rely on migrant help — legal and illegal — because Americans don’t want those jobs any more than they want to pick apples at Apex Orchards.

One way to satisfy our economy’s demand for people to fill the jobs Americans shun is comprehensive immigration reform, not just walls and bans and roundups. Let’s recognize that we actually need immigrants, and let’s expand legal ways for immigrants to come here, long-term or seasonally, as they can through the H2-A visa program. If you don’t like immigrants coming here illegally, there’s a fix for that. Make it easier to come legally.

Yes, screen out the criminals and gangs. By all means. But allow honest, hard-working immigrants to come to our shores to make better lives for themselves and to contribute in a real way to our economy and our communities.