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A bitter harvest

Published May 18, 2012 1:01 am

Alabama immigrant law rots crops
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The state of Alabama last year took aim at its illegal immigrant population and hit its many produce farmers right in the foot.

This year, Heart of Dixie farmers who produce significant amounts of the nation's tomatoes, onions, etc., are trying to avoid getting hit in the other foot. They are, according to the Associated Press, planting much less of the crops that require them to hire platoons of people willing and able to toil for hours in the hot sun and, in some cases, are switching to crops that can instead be harvested by machine.

That means a smaller crop of some basic veggies, which will hurt both the farmers who grow them and the consumers who buy them. What it does not seem to mean, so far, is any realization on the part of Alabama's Gov. Robert Bentley or its Republican legislature that their attempt at writing their own immigration laws not only runs counter to the U.S. Constitution, which confers such power solely in the Congress, but also tries to repeal the law of supply and demand.

From Florida to California, farmers who raise crops other than grains, cotton and peanuts — the foodstuffs that can be harvested by machine — depend on seasonal waves of labor to harvest their crops by hand. And a great deal of that labor is provided by migrants who just happen to be here without government authorization.

Farmers who have tried to get the work done without violating any state or federal laws find that they just cannot hire enough citizens to accomplish that aim. It's not just that the work is much more physically demanding than most 21st century jobs, and thus unattractive to most native-born Americans. It's that to do the work without breaking either their own backs or the tomatoes' peels requires a skill that is handed down from generation to generation, perfected by years of practice, and not on the resumes of most people with legitimate Social Security cards.

Last year, Alabama and Georgia passed laws designed to make life so uncomfortable for illegal immigrants that they would "self-deport." That left Southern farmers with tons of tomatoes rotting in their fields. While there are no official figures yet, people in the know are worried about the same thing happening again this year.

It is simple reality that agriculture in the United States is largely dependent on migrant, and often illegal, labor. Laws, at the state and federal levels, should adjust to this reality and create paths for guest workers to come here legally and do the work our economy commands.

Justice, the economy, and a decent salad, require it.