The State of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs officially estimates that 70% of the state’s work force in industries like farming, fishing and construction are undocumented. I see these South American origin neighbors every day and I have great respect for them. In the past we had many Mexicans but in recent years most come from Venezuela or other South American nations. I suspect the government’s count is low in my local area of rural southwest NJ where it seems that almost all of the non-managerial work force does not speak English and lives in employer-provided housing. I presume most are not citizens. Virtually all of the local small businesses that I see – especially in these industries – have issues with undocumented workers even though some may claim to be unaware.
I often hear comments like “they came into the country illegally” that are just misguided. Based on my conversations with local employers and workers as well as comments in a program at our local Chamber of Commerce, the local undocumented immigrant farm and fishing workers here actually came here legally through agricultural employment companies as seasonal workers and then overstayed their visa not solely of their own doing. They used to leave during the winter months when the farms and fishing companies closed down. I suspect that the employers and the transport companies are complicit in keeping them here now since work seasons have extended longer with new technologies. Consider that the largest employers of undocumented workers are also our most politically connected people and companies. It would be naive to think that the seasonal travel habits of the workers changed independently of the work season prescribed by the employer. The main obstacle to seasonal exit and re-entry seems to be money and contracts. They don’t make enough to travel on their own; which means they are dependent on the transport company.
I understand that they generally don’t want to stay here as part of their life plan but just like most working people, they just want to keep working and paying bills week to week.
Job development programs
I’ve been involved in job development in my section of New Jersey. Cumberland County, New Jersey government has taken strong actions to address our lack of qualified workers. I’ve personally taken large personal and business risks to encourage and support young people to come into agricultural and fishing industries. Working n this field is not an easy life. It requires long hours starting before dawn and enduring all types of weather. It requires learning skills of mechanics and science. Most important, it requires being able to live happily on the market value of the food crop that you produce. So far, none of our candidates show the ability and willingness to learn the necessary skills or demonstrate the commitment required. We wonder what will happen when our current aging workforce is forced to slow down and retire.
Giving up on U.S. workers
I have been involved in at least a dozen recruiting, hiring and firing decisions for American citizen workers at associated small farm businesses. I am convinced, based on my own small sampling of experiences, that local American workers simply don’t want or are not able, for a wide range of reasons, to fill these types of jobs. Other problems remain far beyond our control. Issues like substance abuse, enforcement of legal penalties (especially child support and drunk driving offenses), lack of ethics (stealing), remain rampant. I used to think that I could make a difference by being a positive influence in the life of a worker, but I have no evidence to show for it after decades of trying. Under these circumstances, non-U.S. workers remain the best option for our local agricultural work force.
Back in 1986 President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to up to six million undocumented immigrants. What happened to them over the next 30 years? Many returned to their home country (mostly Mexico) voluntarily. It turned out that they only wanted temporary work where jobs were available, not naturalization leading to citizenship.
Most undocumented workers we know about came into the U.S. legally and just overstayed their work visa even though they continued to work. They pay regular wage taxes but don’t receive most benefits. So they are a net economic benefit to our financial systems.
Undocumented immigrant populations are reported to have comparatively lower crime rates than other native populations. There is no basis to say that undocumented immigrants, as a whole, pose a crime or security risk to our country.
The current situation
President Obama offered deferred deportations for up to 5 million undocumented immigrants, not a permanent path to citizenship. Small businesses, especially in our area, are still saying that they still can’t find enough workers to do the labor on farms and job sites that Americans won’t consider.
It seems to me that we should be able to work out a plan to get the workforce we need without the current hysteria surrounding the issue. The talk of deporting these millions who are the backbone of our economy is ludicrous.