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May 28, 2007 - Americans will not do the work

As the debate moves forward on new immigration legislation I continue to hear from people who complain that migrant workers are taking jobs away from American citizens. I’m convinced there are jobs in this country today that U.S. workers will not do and so to those complainers, I say show me the proof. Agricultural employers tell me constantly that without a migrant worker program, hand-picked crops will not be harvested, meat will not be processed in packing plants and even cows will not be milked.

A case in point...several years ago a friend of mine in southwestern Michigan who owns a large orchard decided to help the unemployed. He sent a bus to Chicago early on a fall morning and picked up 30 workers at the unemployment office who wanted jobs. They arrived at the orchard at 8:00 A.M. to hand-pick apples for the retail market. By 10:00 A.M. some of the workers stopped picking, complaining that the work was just too hard; by noon, all of them were on the bus headed back to Chicago and the unemployment check. Meanwhile, the few migrant workers at the orchard completed a full day of harvest.

This is not an isolated incident. I’ve talked to vegetable and strawberry growers in California who require hand labor throughout the growing season and they tell me without migrant labor, most of their crops would rot in the field. The days of “Chicago - Hog Butcher to the World” when migrant workers, not Hispanic, but from countries in Europe were willing to work in the packing plants just to have a job are long gone. Now, without the availability of Hispanic workers, many plants would be forced to close because American workers do not want to do that kind of work.

And yes, even cows would not be milked. When I was growing up on the Wisconsin dairy farm, our 30 cows were milked by family members and vacations were out of the question because we had to be there seven days a week to milk those cows. If we needed extra help in the summer, we could hire high school kids who loved the extra money.

Life has changed on the dairy farm as families have increased herd size and need more hired labor. High school kids now work in town where hours are fixed and the work isn’t hard labor; that means dairy farmers are turning to migrant workers to milk those cows seven days a week and allow some time off for dairy farm families. It is estimated there are now 4,000 Hispanic cow milkers in Wisconsin alone and that number pales when compared to California, the No. 1 dairy state.

I haven’t even mentioned the landscape or restaurant industries; the point is we need legislation that allows a migrant worker program that makes sense. Without it, we will all pay a heavy price.

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