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RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

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Beef’s Stake in Immigration

Jul 12, 2010

By Steve Cornett  

If you saw the New York Times piece last week on how the Obama administration is conducting “silent raids,” you might have noticed that Gebbers Farms replaced its illegal workforce with legals. But toward the end, we find this passage:

"Show me one American —just one — climbing a picker’s ladder," said María Cervantes, 33, a former Gebbers Farms worker from Mexico who gave her name because she was recently approved as a legal immigrant.

After completing a federally mandated local labor search, Gebbers Farms applied to the federal guest worker program to import about 1,200 legal temporary workers — most from Mexico. The guest workers, who can stay for up to six months, also included about 300 from Jamaica.

NPR did a bit last week on the Newsweek article about the economic resurgence of the Great Plains. A caller from Dodge City was talking about “more jobs than people” in Dodge City. The host asked what kind of jobs. The caller said there was a lot of meat packing.

You could hear the sneer in the host’s voice. “Well, meat packing may not be everybody’s cup of tea,” he said.

No kidding. He didn’t seem to notice that he had kind of made the same point as Ms. Cervantes offered—a point so often made in middle America—about there being a lot of jobs Americans don’t want to do. There are lots of those jobs. I’ve got a few available on my place at the moment, in fact. You probably do too.

Meat packing and orchard tending are good examples of work Americans don’t have to do, even with 10% unemployment. It’s hard, unfulfilling labor. But if you and I are to survive in the cattle business, the work needs to be done, and at wages that don’t force beef prices to unaffordable levels.

Why don’t we let people who want to do that hard and menial stuff do it?

Through the years, I’ve worked with, over and--for a while in college, for--illegal Mexican immigrants. The illegal immigration problem would be easy to fix.

It won’t be with a fence, chain-link, electric or virtual. A fence might help, but like a dam, it won’t hold unless you add a spillway. There is just too much pressure differential on the two sides.
But a workable guest program—a “spillway” that allows desperate employers to hire desperate workers—could. When I was a kid, we had such a program. The unions killed it. If the Republicans and Minute Men had much foresight, the administration’s current dilemma might provide an opportunity. 
I’m not holding my breath until our leaders work it out. But it could work.
What’s needed is for the Republicans to trade the Democrats their 12 million new voters and extreme employer sanctions for a workable guest worker program. 

Yup. I’m saying bring back the bracero program. One that even employers without Gebber Farms’ resources can use.

When I was a kid, my dad employed several braceros. It was a great program for him and for them. They got the going farm wage at the time and government-inspected, decent housing and treatment and the protection afforded by legal standing.

They worked hard. They stole nothing. They took no welfare and no food stamps. We furnished their health care, such as strong, hardworking young men required.

They returned year after year and they loved it. Once a week, as per the rules, we’d take them to town where they would mail their paychecks home. Most had families. One, a teenager about my age, became quite a friend. His money, at first, went to his parents, who were using it to put a son through school. The plan was for the brother to help pay Eliobaldo’s own tuition after he got a good job himself.  

“Al,” as my dad’s Okie tongue had to call him, came back as an illegal for several years after the bracero program was killed. He finally saved enough money to “buy” a policeman’s job in Cuidad Chihuahua. (My attempts to find him since have not been successful.)

Al used his U.S. wages to better himself and his family, and in a small way, his whole country. He did no damage to the U.S. economy. He did work you couldn’t find U.S. citizens to do at the prices we could afford to pay. He wasn’t replaced by U.S. citizens, much less union employees. He was replaced by larger machinery.

His sons or grandsons should have the opportunity to be here now without breaking our laws and without paying some immoral coyote to guide them through a life-threatening desert. They would be if the unions would have allowed it.

Oh, wait. They probably are here. But there is no government oversight—no union control—over how much they’re paid or how they are treated. And, as the Democrats assert, there’s no way to round them up. They have 12 million compadres here, too.

If the goal, as Mr. Obama asserts, is to “bring them out of the shadows,” how about letting them register as guest workers? Give them a green card.

The reason, of course, is Democrats figure they’ll get the lion’s share of votes from illegals given citizenship. Having known a bunch of these guys, I’m not so sure they’re right. But, as somebody has said, the impasse arises because Republicans want the workers and Democrats want the voters.

The Republicans should give way on the voters but, in return, they should demand a workable guest worker program to avoid the pitfall of the 1986 immigration overhaul. That program, which relied on amnesty, employer sanctions, promises of more “border security” and what turned out to be an unworkably complex guest worker program, failed.

By “workable,” I mean one that a dairy farmer or rancher or café owner or meatpacker can afford to use to bring in one or two or 10 or 500 guys. Oversee the treatment and living conditions. Dictate a wage—but don’t require small-timers like me to jump through all the hoops required by current law just to hire a few guys to grub mesquite or hoe cotton.

People from poor countries are already doing much of the U.S. economy’s work, especially factory work. Are we—or the unions—better off because GM hires Mexicans in Mexico instead of the U.S.? Are we better off importing vegetables from Mexico because labor costs in the U.S. have made vegetable production here unprofitable?

I’d argue not. Obama wants “comprehensive” immigration reform badly. Give it to him; build your fence if you must. But don’t make the same mistake we made in the '80s, or 20 or 30 years from now it will all be to do over again. You can’t build a fence high enough any more than you can build a dam high enough to work without a spillway.

It’s a complex political situation. But one part shouldn’t be: Without a solid, usable guest worker program, you aren’t going to stop illegal immigration.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at

This column is part of the Beef Today Cattle Drive
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COMMENTS (10 Comments)

very well written and to the point-both sides do not have the vision to understand that a reasonable solution is best for everyone!!
9:11 AM Jul 14th
I wonder what kind of people we have become, if we can't take care of our own dirty work. It sort reminds me of the cotton plantations and the slaves. Our society should be smart enough to invent the modern day cotton picker that will function in an orchard or a meat packing plant.
9:52 PM Jul 13th

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