On April 6, 2018, the Trump administration rolled out a new “zero tolerance policy” mandating that all individuals who illegally enter the United States must be prosecuted. Although calling for prosecution of undocumented border crossings is not new, the administration’s inhumane practice of forced family separation represents an extreme shift in this country’s treatment of immigrants, who are often fleeing to the United States to seek refuge. America’s economy has long been built by immigrants, and those coming from the Mexican border have a hand in shaping every industry Washington proudly boasts, from aerospace to tech to entrepreneurship to the state’s multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry, which flows through Seattle’s ports daily.
Contrary to a commonly-perpetuated myth, immigrants do not negatively impact the economy that is taking them in. In fact, Washington immigrants alone contributed $815 million to Medicare and $3 billion to Social Security in 2014. Those who arrive in America are here to work. Mexican immigrants show a higher labor force participation rate (69%) than the native-born population (62%). Immigrants play an important role throughout our entire economy— immigrants make up 18 percent of all entrepreneurs in Washington State. However, this article will focus on the impact of migrant workers on our state-wide agricultural industry.
The United States relies on people immigrating from Mexico in every sector of the economy, particularly in our state’s agricultural sector. 40.4% of all workers in the agricultural, farming, fishing, and forestry industries are immigrants.
For workers, an average day in Washington’s many orchards and farms can start as early as 5 A.M., with the most common minimum yield of three to four bins of apples (four bins for Red Delicious, three bins for every other apple variety), 420 pounds of cherries, 152 pounds of blueberries, or four bins of pears per day, depending on which fruit is in season. Washington’s international agricultural industry is dependent on securing a solid group of workers each agricultural season to pick, process, pack, and manage the produce that reaches global markets.
However, the population of Mexican-born immigrants in the U.S. has been steadily decreasing since the peak population of 12.8 million in 2007. From 2009 to 2014, U.S. citizen labor has failed to maintain the workforce needed to keep farms at their highest profitable margins. Benton City, Wash. grower Shawn Gay lost one third of his Gala apples three years ago when the lack of labor meant his farm just simply ran out of time to complete the harvest. Auburn, Wash. farmer Rosella Mosby saw $100,000 of profit rot away due to a loss of more than 20% of their workforce. Like Gay and Mosby, many farmers are seeing that native U.S. born workers are not able to make up for the labor gap caused by a declining foreign-born workforce. Fruit goes unpicked which means farms are losing out on precious profits and putting their livelihoods, as well as Washington’s export economy at risk.
It is no wonder that fewer Mexican-born immigrants are coming to fill Washington jobs, with agricultural worker conditions becoming harsher. According to The Economist, “while immigration between 1990 and 2006 had little effect on wages of native-born Americans, it lowered the wages of previous immigrants by 6.7%.” Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regularly raids and audits farms, and the effect is obvious to local farm owners. “There is a lot more concern and worry,” Hedlin Family farm owner Dave Hedlin said in a 2017 interview with Go Skagit. “Even if you have a green card, you worry. Everybody has got to know people who aren’t legal.”
We have too much to lose with a disappearing immigrant population. Washington State is the second largest food distributor in the U.S., which means that the ripple effects of a lesser supply of exports affects the entire world. Our state’s economy is built on the backs, hands, and feet of each migrant worker, who are constantly enduring the fear and worry that the administration has instilled. ICE raids and detention centers are terrorizing and destroying the immigrant communities that have, for years, done the heavy lifting to build this country. We need to be working to protect and build the migrant community, not tearing them down.
Learn more about OED’s work to support Latinx and all small business owners in Seattle here, and understand resources available to immigrants of any background through the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, such as the free Legal Defense Network, free naturalization services and workshops, English as a Second Language job-readiness skills, and more.