(2 of 2)
The truth about whether these workers really endanger traditional American jobs is a bit more complicated, though. For many factories, guest workers can do little more than delay the inevitable shutdown that comes from dying demand or global competition. In the quiet shore town of Oriental, N.C., for instance, the Garland Fulcher Seafood Co. turned to guest workers after locals stopped applying for jobs as pickers, who are given the cruelly repetitive task of prying blue-crab meat out of the shell. But the company is now out of the crab-picking business altogether: not even a guest-worker program could save it from the plunging crab market. Even though it's situated near a rich and storied crab fishery, Garland Fulcher's only business now is repackaging and distributing cheaper foreign crabmeat.
Garland Fulcher's experience proves guest-worker programs don't necessarily keep Mexicans from settling here illegally. More than 10% of the company's 2006 workforce took off to live in the U.S. without returning home to Mexico. "If you want to talk about illegals," says Michelle Noevere, who worked in Garland Fulcher's front office last year, "there's the border, and then there's this foot in the door called a guest-worker program."
So what's the solution? One clue can be found in the failed amnesty of 1986, widely viewed as the genesis of the current crisis. The moment newly legalized farmworkers realized they had better options, they left for the cities instead of staying in low-paying agriculture jobs. Their exodus from the fields opened the door to an even larger wave of illegal immigration. And that raises the question, Will American agriculture ever pay enough to attract American citizens rather than just illegals? If it did, the newly legalized millions who are currently working in the fields might be inclined to stay there. But paying living wages for farmwork would, of course, require the rest of us to pay a lot more for food, become much more protectionist or both. If the country isn't ready to take those steps, here's an apostasy being whispered by some economists: get rid of large-scale agriculture altogether. England did it and is content to buy the bulk of its food from foreign producers. Less food security, perhaps, but also less need for guest workers. It's a difficult discussion in the U.S., a country that has become addicted to cheap labor. But one thing is certain in North Carolina: the immigration solution of the future isn't even working today.