Who’s Gonna Pick the Tomatoes?

Alabama's experiment with banishing “illegal aliens” isn't going well, so it seems unwise to try it in Pennsylvania

The cover story in the latest issue of Bloomberg Business Week is headlined, “Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs.” It relates what’s happened in Alabama since September 29th, when a law punishing businesses that hire undocumented workers went into effect. Can you guess? The good ol’ boys down there who wanted Amurrrica kept safe for Amurrricans are watching produce rot, unpicked, in their fields. The president of a seafood processing plant has 158 positions he can’t fill since the exodus of his Latino employees. He drove to the city where many of them lived and begged them to come back. No dice. Thousands of field hands, hotel room-cleaners, chicken-plant workers and other low-paid, no-benefits employees have simply fled the state.

It’s not that the employers haven’t tried to find Americans to pick up the slack. But Americans can’t hack it. They try to pick tomatoes for eight and 10 hours straight in the hot sun, but the work’s just too damned hard for the lousy pay. State agriculture commissioner John McMillan says he’s not panicking: “Our farmers are very innovative and are used to coming up with all kinds of things. Something I’ve thought about is, maybe we should go to four-hour shifts instead of eight-hour shifts.”

Whoa. Four-hour shifts? Have we come to that?

Alabama’s law has worked halfway; it’s kicked undocumented workers out of their jobs. The half that isn’t going so smoothly is getting Alabamians to fill them. That’s strange, since the Republican governor got the bill passed in the first place by claiming those jobs had been stolen from Americans. That’s the exact same claim made by Pennsylvania State Representative Daryl Metcalfe when he recently introduced a packet of get-tough-on-illegals bills in our State Assembly. His “National Security Begins at Home Legislation,” as he calls it, is intended to benefit Pennsylvania’s unemployed: “There’s illegal aliens coming here specifically to find work, and if we can find work for illegal aliens, we should be able to find work for Americans.” Metcalfe might want to talk to employers down in Alabama about that.

I doubt he will. He’s too busy battling what he’s taken to calling “Invasion PA,” and putting on the “National Day of Remembrance of Victims of Illegal Aliens” he celebrated a week ago. (It commemorated those “killed and victimized by illegal alien invaders.” Really! Check out the video on his website. The dude’s seen Independence Day one too many times.)

In the Bloomberg article, Princeton University sociologist Doug Massey, who studies immigration issues, says it isn’t the hard work that turns Americans off to agricultural jobs; it’s the stigma we attach to them once they become known as “immigrant jobs.” I don’t know. One of the few undocumented workers still picking in the Alabama fields says, “The only reason that we can stand it is for our children.” That value system seems pretty all-American to me.