Grape harvesters of illegal immigration wrath

Want to stop the flow of migrant crop pickers across the border? Upgrade!

By Andrew Leonard

Published July 20, 2007 6:08PM (EDT)

"Oregonians for Immigration Reform" have found true love -- in the form of a fancy, expensive grape harvesting machine that goes by the sexy name of New Holland Braud.

According to the Oregonian the anti-immigration group is touting "the European machine as a beacon of a future without illegal labor."

Jim Ludwick, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, learned that a New Holland Braud grape harvester had been sold to a vineyard in McMinnville, Ore., last year.

It picked 3.5 tons of pinot noir grapes in 20 minutes with three workers, the Capital Press article said. Usually that would have taken 34 workers an hour.

Finally, Ludwick had an Oregon example to make his case. He began to tout the New Holland harvester in speeches, as well as to state legislators, members of Congress and radio talk-show hosts.

"This is what modern societies do," he said. "They mechanize and wean themselves off cheap stoop labor."

That may well be true, but let's ponder the implications. The adoption of mechanized agriculture as a tactic for combating illegal immigration simultaneously accepts the theory that the jobs being done by illegal immigrants are jobs "Americans don't want to do" and abandons the hoary anti-immigration plank that demands secure borders to "protect American jobs." Mechanized harvesting means fewer jobs, period. And of course, even as it reduces the number of available jobs, it does absolutely nothing to alleviate the pressure that pushes immigrants across borders, legally or illegally, in search of a better life. In fact, if more mechanized harvesting of crops that have hitherto been out-of-bounds for robots leads to greater efficiencies for American farmers, allowing them to compete even more effectively with farmers in developing nations, it could conceivably make those farmers even worse off, and contribute even more to their motivation to pick up and move.

Your basic neoclassical economist will tell you that anything that makes a sector of an economy more efficient will generate capital that can then be plowed into other sectors of the economy, creating more jobs and prosperity for all. From this perspective, the prospect of a future in which robots do all the hard manual labor is nothing to worry about. But a growing body of research, spearheaded by Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, suggests that technological progress may be a bigger villain, in terms of contributing to growing income inequality in the world today, than everybody's favorite boogeyman, globalization (in which category we will include outsourcing, offshoring and worker migration). At best (or worst) globalization plus technology are together putting the squeeze on everyone who doesn't have the skills or education to thrive in our increasingly technologically mediated world.

Reducing the number of available "stoop labor" jobs without simultaneously beefing up investments in education and job training and social safety net protections -- not just in the United States, but everywhere -- seems a bit short-sighted. If technological change really is contributing significantly to growing income inequality then the world is facing much bigger threats than anything posed by "illegal labor."

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works Immigration Immigration Reform