POLITICS

Why low-skill immigration is different than free trade

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Conn Carroll,Immigration,Free Trade

McClatchy Newspapers has an excellent story on immigration Tuesday, reporting on how farmers are framing the debate to their representatives:

Walk the aisles of any neighborhood grocery store today and you’re as likely to find tomatoes picked in Sinaloa, Mexico, as Central California or oranges from Sao Paulo, Brazil, as Bradenton, Fla.

Farmers across the country warn that shoppers will find even more imported food on their store shelves if Congress fails to pass immigration legislation that would guarantee them enough workers to milk their cows and harvest their fruits and vegetables.

“The bottom line is people need to decide whether they’d rather import their labor or import their food,” said Randall Patterson, a China Grove, N.C., farmer who grows strawberries, cucumbers and watermelons among his crops.

This is exactly right. The debate over low-skill agriculture labor is really a debate over whether or not the United States wants to import more food from other countries, or import more low-skill labor to harvest food grown here. If Schumer-Rubio passes, farmers will be able to import more farmworkers, thus keeping their labor costs low. If Schumer-Rubio does not pass, farmers will be forced to pay higher wages, thus making them somewhat less competitive compared to foreign competition. More food will have to be imported.

But there is a very big difference between importing food and importing low-skill labor. When we import oranges from Brazil, American taxpayers don’t have to pay for the health care consumed by the workers who picked them; Brazilian taxpayers do. When we import tomatoes from Mexico, American taxpayers don’t have to pay to educate the children of the workers who picked them; Mexican taxpayers do.

But when we import laborers from Mexico and Brazil, it is American taxpayers who have to pay for the health care, food stamps, education, and other programs that benefit those who live in the United States. As the Cato Journal noted in 2012:

U.S. employers enjoy benefits from immigration, in terms of higher productivity for their operations, while taxpayers pay for the education and health services that immigrant households receive. Taxpayers thus subsidize employers in agriculture, construction, meatpacking, restaurants and hotels, and other sectors that have high levels of employment of low-skilled immigrant labor.

The Schumer-Rubio bill currently being marked up by the Senate Judiciary Committee is really just another massive farm subsidy program paid for by American taxpayers. There is nothing conservative about it.

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