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Thursday, June 26, 2014 12:01 am

Cheap food I: illegal immigrants


“It kills me that the folks who freak out over ‘illegal immigrants streaming over the border to steal American jobs’ are often the same folks who love $0.99 boxes of strawberries …. Don’t want illegals coming over here to work? Get ready to pay fair, American wages to the workers who produce your food. Just saying.”  A friend’s recent Facebook post
Shocked as I was that United States House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in Virginia’s June 10 primary, I was even more flabbergasted that he lost to an opponent even more conservative than he. According to the media, Cantor’s constituents thought he was too liberal on illegal immigration issues, primarily because he had voiced support for a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants.

It’s hard for me to believe that Cantor’s stance on illegal immigrants was the primary reason for his defeat. But some polls taken after the election confirm that that is indeed the primary cause. (Although if those polls were taken by the same folks who predicted a huge Cantor victory, their accuracy is doubtful.)

Tea Partiers and their ilk may insist that the only solution to America’s illegal alien “problem” is to deport all of ’em and do whatever it takes and however much it costs to prevent newbie and repeaters from crossing our borders; they dismiss charges that such ideas are impractical, impossible and inhumane. I’m certainly no expert on illegal immigration’s mind-boggling complexities, or how to resolve them. But I know enough to know that – whether Tea Party types realize it or not – if they enjoy buying produce that’s always available, always abundant, and always cheap, they are also hypocrites.

That’s because America’s bounty of year-round, inexpensive fresh produce depends on vast numbers of illegal aliens. Not all growers employ illegal aliens, but using them is so preponderant that it drives down prices overall.

Eric Schlosser frequently writes about the American food system; he is the author of the bestselling and influential book Fast Food Nation. Schlosser also investigated three of the largest American black-market businesses in his book, Reefer Madness: marijuana (hence the title), pornography and the commercial strawberry industry.

Schlosser’s book predates the federal government’s and states’ current trend toward marijuana decriminalization and/or legalization. And there’s evidence that those American efforts are beginning to substantially decimate the profits of Mexican and Central and South American drug cartels’ profits; so the marijuana section of Reefer Madness probably will soon need updating.

Regardless, why did Schlosser lump strawberries with marijuana and pornography? What about commercial strawberry farming makes it a black market industry? Schlosser says that it is because of industrial strawberry farming’s reliance on illegal immigrants for cheap labor.

Commercial strawberry farms are hardly the only agricultural operations to use illegals. Even though much of farming has become mechanized, as Schlosser says, “Nearly every fruit and vegetable found in the diet of health-conscious, often high-minded consumers is still picked by hand: every head of lettuce, every bunch of grapes, every avocado, peach and plum. As the demand for these foods has risen, so has the number of workers necessary to harvest them.

It’s impossible to gauge the size of the migrant workforce because so much of it is composed of illegal immigrants.” However, illegals are estimated to make up as much as 60 percent of migrant labor.

Schlosser chose to focus on commercial strawberry production because it’s huge. Since the 1970s, demand for fresh strawberries has doubled. U.S. farmers make more money from strawberries than any other fruit except apples. In 2003, sales of California strawberries, which account for 80 percent of the U.S. market, were around $840 million.

The other reason, according to Schlosser: “Strawberry pickers are not only the poorest migrants, but also the ones most likely to be illegal immigrants.”

Strawberry farming can be highly profitable, but it’s also highly risky. The market can fluctuate wildly. Strawberries are delicate, especially susceptible to pests and even more so to weather. They’re fragile and highly perishable and must be precisely picked and arranged in boxes to avoid bruising; it can take weeks to learn to pick strawberries correctly. In fact, migrants have long called strawberries la fruita del diablo – the devil’s fruit, because picking them is the most difficult, lowest paid, and consequently least desirable farm work.

Cultivating strawberries is also labor intensive – 25 times as intensive as broccoli, which is why strawberry fields in the Central Coast now employ more workers than all other produce fields combined.

Mexican migrant workers have always been a part of California’s agricultural scene. Until 1929, there was no restriction of movement between Mexico and California. At the time it was estimated that 70 to 80 percent of migrant farm workers were Mexican. Even after illegal immigration became a misdemeanor, it remained an accepted part of California agriculture. That is why the Immigration and Naturalization Service used to wait until immediately after harvest to round up and deport illegal immigrants. “By relying on poor migrants from Mexico, growers established a wage structure that discouraged Americans from seeking farm work,” says Schlosser. “The wages . . . were too low to sustain [an American family], but were up to 10 times as high as Mexican peasants could earn in their native villages.

A system evolved in which the cheap labor of Mexican migrants subsidized California agriculture, while remittances from that farm work preserved [Mexican] rural communities that might otherwise have collapsed.”

Working and living conditions for most migrant workers are heart-rending. Many live in cardboard shanties, in the open, and even in caves. Still, Schlosser points the finger at the system rather than at any specific group – not even growers. It’s a situation without any easy solutions.

“This system did not arise because growers are innately mean and heartless,” Schlosser says. “Harvests are unpredictable from beginning to end.” Growers are also under intense pressure to keep prices low; if they don’t, they risk being undercut by imports from countries with even lower wages (and environmental standards). Because labor is their biggest expense (50 to 70 percent), growers rely on the thriving black labor market – if they don’t, some face losing their farms.

China currently supplies “the preponderance of our apples, garlic and, very soon, potatoes,” says Terra Brockman, executive director of The Land Connection, an Illinois nonprofit that “envisions community-based food systems in the Midwest in which every farmer has the opportunity to grow food in a sustainable manner, and every person has the choice to enjoy local and organic foods.” She cites economist John Ikerd’s prediction that an OFEC (Organization of Food Exporting Countries) will arise with “even worse repercussions that OPEC. We can live without oil; we can’t live without food.”

Schlosser cites growers, such as Driscoll Associates and Coastal Berry that “play by the rules and treat their workers well. Indeed, strawberry pickers aspire to jobs at [such] farms … where the fields are immaculate and the wages are the highest in the industry.”

Coming in July: How a former food magazine, public opinion, and corporate food titans have improved the lives of commercial tomato workers.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.


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