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What would comprehensive immigration reform look like if the Feds got off their duffs?

"I think Los Angeles is probably governed by illegal aliens right now," he says. "I've heard there are more illegal aliens in Los Angeles than there are Californians."

Berman and Riddle's cause fits on a bumper sticker: Get 'Em Out. The complex case for the moderate side is made of many arguments, but taken one at a time, each can also be direct, persuasive, even simple.

Craig Regelbrugge, whose national group ACIR represents labor-intensive agriculture, starts with a simple fact: Most ag workers in this country are foreign citizens, here illegally, working with fake IDs.

Curt Merlo
Curt Merlo


But the next thing he says is that his industry is totally dependent on them to harvest certain kinds of crops. Native-born American workers won't do the work, he insists, almost at any wage, certainly not at a wage that would allow American growers to compete with imported products.

"There are somewhere on the order of 1.6 million farm workers who are seriously engaged in agricultural work in the U.S.," he says. "Current estimates are that certainly more than half and probably upward of more than 75 percent of those workers lack proper immigration status."

So if they're not here legally, and it's a crime to hire them, why don't the growers all get arrested? It's a question that has been answered in the courts.

The courts have ruled that if a worker shows an employer credible-looking citizenship documents, the employer breaks no law by hiring him. Regglebrugge says the foreign workers his industry hires all have expertly forged citizenship documents.

Another question: Even if it's legal, why take the risk? Agricultural businesses typically have big loans to pay and must put up with plenty of Vegas-style uncertainty in the matter of weather alone. Why would they volunteer for the additional risk of a big federal roundup of their entire workforce right at harvest time?

"That's a very good question," Regelbrugge says, "and it allows me to dispel a common misconception that farmers somehow prefer the system they have."

He says they hate the system. But farmers have to hire the people with fake IDs or go out of business. It's why they want reform.

"It's pretty much become a settled matter that foreign-born workers are going to be doing much of the agricultural work in this country. Nobody who is informed is really disputing that.

"Anti-immigrant groups will argue that if things were different, wages were higher and working conditions were different, Americans would do this work."

But Americans, Regelbrugge counters, don't do hard outdoor seasonal work anymore. They will work for less money to work indoors at Walmart or McDonald's.

It's not even about money. "We can all argue about where the cheap-labor line exists," he says. "But the average wage in agriculture is more than $10 per hour and substantially higher than the federal minimum wage. Good strawberry pickers can make $18 or $20 an hour."

Regglebrugge says nobody in his industry thinks hiring native-born Americans is even an option. If the supply of foreign workers dries up, American growers will get out of the fresh fruit and handpicked produce trade entirely—a process he thinks is already under way.

"The ultimate question is not who will do the work here," he says. "It's whether the work will be done here, or whether the work will leave the country."

On the other hand, some American workers who did not want to lose their jobs have lost them anyway in the onslaught of low-wage immigrant workers that began in the late 1980s. In the drywall-installation trade in California, for example, academic studies have documented the erosion of wages and other benefits and the eventual collapse of the drywall installers' union after contractors began hiring immigrant laborers.

But that still leaves us with the facts on the ground today, and now the American economy is deeply dependent on immigrants—not merely on immigrants in general, but specifically on undocumented immigrants. A 2009 study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that undocumented workers make up 40 percent of the brick masons in this country, 37 percent of drywall installers, 28 percent of dishwashers, 27 percent of maids and 21 percent of parking-lot attendants. The sheer economic shock factor in abruptly running off that large a contingent of the national workforce would be staggering.

There also is a more high-end problem. Among people pushing for reform is a contingent that says a punitive restriction-based approach to immigration will damage the country badly in high-tech and professional fields, where international competition for highly qualified immigrants is global and intense.

David Leopold, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says our immigration system already is a messy proposition for the legal immigrants, whom American companies, universities and hospitals must competitively recruit.

The total number of visas available in the country in any given year, for example, is not tied to the needs of industry. Visa availability has more to do with decades-old policies aimed at reunifying the families of immigrants who are already here, and even that system is a mess. An Aug.12 VVM story explained that the current system sets the same cap on visas for Mexico as for Belgium, so that families in Mexico seeking permission to join relatives here legally may wait 20 years before their cases even come up for review.

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