Des Moines Business Record 08-11-07 Iowa and the illegal immigration debate

Des Moines Business Record
Iowa and the illegal immigration debate
A bitter wind was howling outside. Power lines, streets and trees were already
glazed with ice. Sandra Sanchez, an American Friends Service Committee
project manager, planned to finish some paperwork and beat the oncoming
blizzard home. Normally, she is busy counseling immigrants. But she was
stunned to hear a knock on her door that day.
A Mexican man and woman were on the porch, bearing paper bag luggage and
dressed in shorts, sneakers and nylon windbreakers. Sanchez pulled them
inside, asking why they wore such flimsy clothes in bitter cold.
"This is all we had when we left Mexico," the man replied. "We spent our money
on bus tickets to get us over the border. Then we walked."
What drives people to make that journey? A major reason is economics. In
Mexico, the minimum wage for urban workers is $4.36 per day and rural workers
get a minimum of only $4.11 per day.
According to a 2004 Iowa Legislative Services Agency study, more than 70,000
undocumented immigrants live in Iowa. Sanchez figures that estimate is too low.
Undocumented immigrants appear to be less than 4 percent of Iowa's population.
But Sanchez knows the number will grow along with fears that illegal immigrants
drive down the wages of American workers.
There are some newly minted studies of immigration's impact on Iowa. And they
hold many surprises.
Immigration and meatpacking
Unions and illegal immigrants would seem like natural antagonists. U.S.
manufacturing plants fled in droves to Mexico because Mexican employees were
willing to work for lower wages and fewer benefits. But United Food and
Commercial Workers International vice president Mark Lauritsen sees things
differently in Iowa.
Lauritsen oversees unionization efforts in Iowa's manufacturing, food processing
and meatpacking plants.
"In Iowa, new Latino immigrants, especially those working in meatpacking, are
often the first to vote for unionization," Lauritsen said. "They often become
effective organizers who can explain what a fair wage is and how pension plans
"Employers know that, too," Lauritsen continued. "When Latino workers talk to
me about unionizing, their bosses often threaten to call Immigration to come in
and question the workers."
The UFCW unionized 26 plants in Iowa, including Doane Pet Care Co. and
National By-Products Inc. in Des Moines and Smithfield Foods Inc. in Perry.
Lauritsen said the average wage at a unionized plant is $11 per hour and
workers get health insurance and pension plans.
Those wages can go substantially higher as workers acquire skills. Philip Martin,
a University of California, Davis professor of agricultural and resource
economics, completed a landmark study of illegal immigrants' wages in
California, Texas, Iowa, Florida and North Carolina. He found that wages initially
tumbled as meatpackers moved from cities to rural areas.
But in recent years, meat-packers took over a lot of the skilled carving that was
previously done by grocery butchers and restaurants. Those carving skills can
bump wages higher.
"Being a chuck boner or a gut snatcher are physically hard jobs," Lauritsen said.
"But those are skills that are in demand."
Farm wages and illegal works
The impact immigrants have on farm wages is very different from what happened
in meatpacking. For 30 years, Iowa State University economist Wallace
Huffman has done groundbreaking research on the impact of immigrant labor on
farm workers' wages in Iowa and elsewhere. He recently presented his research
at a Washington, D.C. immigration reform conference.
His studies concluded that illegal immigrants working on farms earned 10 to 15
percent less than their legal coworkers, thus depressing wages overall.
"But that has not become the hot button issue it is in California because Iowa's
main crops are corn and soybeans, which rely more on mechanized picking than
human labor," Huffman said. "Harvesting those crops doesn't require working by
hand so those farmers don't require immigrant labor."
U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys show that nationwide, over 80 percent of
farm workers are Latino. Huffman estimates there are only 2,000 fruit and
vegetable farms in Iowa.
About 80 percent of farm workers nationwide are paid an hourly rate. Depending
on skill level and demand, pay can be higher than minimum wage. For example,
in California's vineyards, the hourly wage normally starts at $8.02 hourly because
pruning vines and harvesting grapes is skilled labor. Some wineries provide free
dormitory housing for workers.
Huffman said fruit and vegetable farmers who hire immigrant labor may have
very little contact with their Spanish-speaking workers.
"Most hiring for (fruit and vegetable workers) nationwide is done through farm
labor contractors who are responsible for making sure the workers are legal,
finding them housing and paying them," Huffman explained. "Unfortunately, it's a
system that been exploited in other states."
The Immigration and Naturalization Service has discovered contractors
demanding as much as $12,000 in fees from workers to get them illegally onto
U.S. farms. In his studies, Martin found examples of unscrupulous contractors
who never find housing for their workers or pack six workers into one-bedroom
Would wages and benefits for workers who harvest fruits and vegetables improve
if undocumented workers were banished from the fields? "The quick answer to
that is yes," Huffman replied. "My research indicates that farmers would be
spending about 25 to 30 percent more on labor without illegal workers. Grocery
prices would probably increase by 10 percent."
In the Deep South, Americans are sometimes competing with foreign workers for
field work. "Here in Iowa, farmers who use immigrant labor really do need those
workers," Huffman said. "But there must be a better way than the contracting
Questioning the contracting system was lethal for one labor union. This February,
the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a part of the AFL-CIO, sent Santiago
Rafael Cruz, a 29-year-old staffer from Toledo, Ohio to FLOC's Monterrey,
Mexico office to help workers there get visas for free. The goal was to help
Mexican workers avoid paying unfair fees to contractors.
On April 9, Rafael Cruz was found bound, gagged and beaten to death in his
office. Nothing was stolen.
Despite that tragedy, FLOC has helped reform the system incrementally. It
negotiated a contract on behalf of 8,000 Mexican workers with 1,050 North
Carolina farms. The farmers agreed to pay for the field workers' visas and
Breaking the law
"The myth is that all of the people here illegally don't care about obeying the law,"
Sanchez said. "There is a huge backlog of visa applications. I see people every
day who very much want to comply with U.S. law. Many come here legally on
visas and apply for extensions months before their deadlines. Processing takes
so long, the deadline passes, which makes them outlaws."
Huffman regards Iowa as a bellwether state for the rest of the Midwest because
Latino immigration is relatively new.
Iowa has time to craft regulations that protect the law and the new arrivals and
citizens who work here, he observed.
"I'm an optimist and a realist," Huffman said. "I think fair immigration reform is
"But I know it probably won't happen during a presidential campaign year," he
added. "It's too volatile an issue."