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Bush 43’s bankrupt 'Let them pick cotton' immigration policy

Bush 43’s bankrupt 'Let them pick cotton' immigration policy
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George W. Bush couldn’t have found a more receptive audience for his recent appeal for more open borders than the opulent St. Regis Resort on Saadiyat Island just outside Abu Dhabi.

“Americans don’t want to pick cotton at 105 degrees, but there are people who want to put food on their family’s tables and are willing to do that,” he said at a summit organized by a think tank founded by Michael Milken, the former junk bond king who was sentenced to a decade in prison in 1990 after pleading guilty to six felonies. “We ought to say thank you and welcome them.”

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Bush 43’s take on immigration policy is worth debating, even though cotton-picking has been mechanized for decades because it’s a frequently-argued, elitist demand for a permanent underclass that ignores an avenue of legal immigration farmers long have had at their disposal.

 

Bush 43 and many other members of America’s country club set long have espoused the condescending belief that America’s poor have grown lazy and need to be replaced in the labor pool by hungrier migrants from developing nations. The typical justification is, essentially, “If not them, who will pick our crops?”

Aside from the obvious social costs that come with importing low-wage, low-benefits workers who, if they manage to rise above their socioeconomic station, will need to be replaced, the Marie Antoinette “let them pick cotton” types ignore the fact that farmers can import farm laborers through a program called the H-2A visa. This is technically a “seasonal” labor program, but workers can stay for up to three years at a time (they then have to depart for three months), and they get to bring their spouses and minor children with them.  

Unlike other restricted visa categories, such as the H-1B visa, the H-2A program is numerically unlimited and has been growing rapidly, rising from 16,011 visas issued in 1997 to 74,192 in 2013 to 161, 583 in 2017. (And these figures do not include their spouses and children.)

Why aren’t even more farmers using this program and why do politicians and members of the media insist that we need a guest worker program for farm workers? First, the H-2A program imposes a number of requirements, and plenty of bureaucracy and government oversight on farmers. In order to prove that they cannot find American workers to do the jobs, most farmers who use the program hire immigration attorneys, who don’t come cheap.

But good lawyers know how to skirt bureaucratic requirements designed to protect American workers. Employers place what are called “compliance” advertisements designed to make jobs sound as unappealing as possible, and they make no serious efforts to recruit locally because they’ve paid an attorney and committed to insourcing foreign labor, so any “real” American job applicants are merely getting in their way of their preferred hiring scheme.

Once in the program, employers are subject to government oversight to ensure that they are paying prevailing wages, providing suitable accommodation and so on. As a former immigration official, I have interviewed H-2A employers and applicants, and as a journalist, I’ve interviewed seasonal employers of all kinds. Some have been candid about why they would rather hire illegally — it is simply cheaper and easier than hiring an immigration attorney and inviting the federal government to scrutinize one’s labor practices.

Like nearly every program run by the federal government, the H-2A visa program needs reform. It should be easy enough to use that farmers don’t need to hire immigration attorneys. But let’s not pretend that the program isn’t there to justify maintaining a porous border. According to a 2013 estimate from The Center for Immigration Studies, only about 5 percent of illegal immigrants work in agriculture, and of 472 occupations as defined by the Department of Labor, only six are majority immigrant (legal and illegal).

Americans can and will do hard and even dangerous work, as the annual flow of workers up to Alaska to do tough, but high-paying jobs, proves. Bush 43, Michael Milken and other elites pontificating at the St. Regis champion a kind of variation on the Noble Savage theory. They idealize people who do work they think is demeaning but forget that there's another America they know little about, full of people doing what they consider "dirty work." ​Rather than trying to conjure up new ways to add to our already formidable underclass, a better idea would be to streamline our H-2A visa program and re-evaluate our immigration policies to prioritize American workers over the needs of employers looking for shortcuts to pass their labor costs on to taxpayers.

Dave Seminara was a tenured member of the U.S. Foreign Service from 2002-2007. He worked as a consular and political officer at U.S. embassies in Macedonia, Trinidad and Hungary, with temporary consular assignments in Poland and Bulgaria, and also has worked in the Bureau of African Affairs.