IMMIGRATION….In a few days I’ll go to the polls to vote in a special election for the congressional seat vacated by Chris Cox, who was confirmed as head of the SEC last July. We’ve got the usual Republican and Democratic candidates on the ballot, of course, but we’ve also got an American Independent candidate: Jim Gilchrist, founder of The Minutemen, a group that became briefly famous earlier this year by heading down to the Arizona border with lawn chairs in tow to prevent the United States from being “devoured and plundered by the menace of tens of millions of invading illegal aliens.”

Did it work? As a PR exercise it worked great, and although the Minutemen themselves didn’t accomplish much, the pressure they’ve put on the Border Patrol for the past year seems to have paid off: vegetable growers say they’re likely to get only 22,000 workers for their fields this year, compared to the 54,000 they need. Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association, explains why:

“There are just some jobs people don’t want to do,” Nassif said. “It’s the most developed nation in the world using a foreign workforce, and people need to recognize that. We need to make them legal.”

Jack Vessey [who runs a vegetable farm near El Centro] said he listed openings for 300 laborers at the state office of employment last week to prepare the lettuce fields for harvest. “We got one person,” he said. “He showed up and said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ “

Now that’s an odd thing, isn’t it? Immigration foes like Gilchrist insist that if we only cut down on the supply of Mexican farm workers, wages and benefits would go up and plenty of Americans would be available for harvesting our leafy greens. And yet, despite this year’s severe shortage of Mexican labor, Vessey is apparently offering the same backbreaking work, brutal conditions, low pay, and nonexistent benefits that he always has. Likewise, Ed Curry, a chili farmer who has given up on employing legal workers because the H2A program has “too many snafus,” says only that he would be willing to pay legal workers “a bit more” than he does now.

Is this reluctance to increase wages caused by a fear that higher labor costs would make their produce too expensive to sell? On its face, that seems unlikely. Even a whopping 40% increase in farm wages would increase the wholesale cost of produce by only about 10%. But a shortage caused by letting crops go unharvested would surely have the same effect ? and supermarkets would continue to buy.

That’s not to say that foreign competition isn’t a real issue for California farmers. It is. Still, the lesson from this natural experiment along the Arizona border seems pretty clear: farmers are flatly unwilling to pay their workers more. Whether that’s because it would price their produce out of the market or because even a big wage increase wouldn’t attract enough legal workers hardly matters. The evidence indicates that farmers would rather let their crops rot in the field than pay ten bucks an hour.

In other words, Gilchrist and his nativist ilk are barking up the wrong tree. What we need isn’t a bunch of yahoos dotting the border with their lawn chairs and cell phones. Instead, we need to recognize that ? like it or not ? Americans very clearly want and rely on immigrant labor. The key, then, is not to eliminate it, but to figure out a rational way of limiting illegal immigration without simultaneously demonizing immigrants themselves. This might include programs that make it harder to cross the border illegally, but only if we also provide legal status to many more immigrants than we do now.

This combination ? easier legal immigration paired with tougher illegal immigration ? would provide immigrants with a greater incentive to try the legal route instead of the all-too-deadly “season of death” route. It would also provide us with the pool of immigrant labor we obviously want, increase immigrant wages, and cut down on the abuse they suffer from employers who know how easily they can be blackmailed.

Seems like it would be worth a try.

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