OPED: Immigrants enhance our community

Mary Barnes
Springfield Township

In a recent Dispatch opinion piece, Sen. Mike Regan took exception to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Crispin Sartwell, a resident of nearby York Springs. In it, Sartwell described the devastating effect on Adams County following the escalated crackdown on immigrants waged by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.

Dr Mary Barnes of Springfield Township and other members of RiseUp York meet with Nadine Hubner (not shown), district director of State Senator Scott Wagner's office for a round table discussion on legislation concerning undocumented immigrants in Pennsylvania, Thursday, March 9, 2017.  John A. Pavoncello photo

Sartwell addressed the fear and cruel separation of immigrant families as well as the affect this will have on our local agricultural industry, which includes the Hollabaughs and Rices, multi-generational fruit-growing families.

Regan dismisses concerns about potential shortage of laborers, noting that, nationally, only 4 percent of unauthorized immigrant labor is “employed in agricultural jobs like farming, fishing and forestry.” That may seem like a small percentage but it equals 25 percent of the nation’s agricultural workforce in addition to the 20 percent more who are documented immigrants.

Going beyond Adams County, the Los Angeles Times has reported that in the California Central Valley - which produces more than half of all produce in the U.S. - 90 percent of workers are foreign-born and more than half of these are undocumented. A Silverado labor contracting firm there said it has never had a white American-born person take an entry-level job, despite good pay.

This is a story repeated across the country. We are talking about jobs few native-born citizens want. They require hard, unpleasant, outdoor, physically-demanding seasonal work.

Wisconsin dairy farmers say they may have to raise prices — or worse, go out of business — if they lose their workers. Nearly 80 percent of the Wisconsin dairy industry workers are immigrants, many of whom are undocumented.

The American Farm Bureau Federation estimated if access to migrant labor is cut off,  $5 billion to $9 billion annually will be lost — and that number would likely rise over time.

This leaves farmers with few options: They could move operations abroad; import more workers with special visas (but with the immigration system in flux, that’s not a viable choice); replace workers with machines; or abandon their farms altogether.

Regan dismisses fruit and vegetable picking as a relatively small part of the overall U.S. farm economy. And he argues one should be reassured that bigger crops, like wheat, corn and cotton, “account for a far greater share of total agricultural output.” And, perhaps in an attempt to make us feel better, Reagan writes that wheat, corn and cotton industries are largely automated.

I am the opposite of reassured. As a retired family practice doctor who spent a lot of time advocating for a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables to diabetics and others, I wonder where the fruit and vegetables will come from and if they will be affordable.

Regan accuses Sartwell of using scary rhetoric then proceeds to use a good deal of his own, referring to “endangered American communities” and an “unmitigated trafficking of heroin” — and by warning that “Illegal immigration is not a victimless crime.”

This reflects a right-wing mentality — encouraged by President Donald Trump — that asserts immigrants are a drain on the U.S. economy and taxpayers, straining services and decreasing wages of native-born workers — and they are criminals!

Inconveniently for them, facts prove otherwise in most instances.

The National Academy of Sciences last fall published a comprehensive report on the impact of immigration. Its conclusions clearly suggest the benefits outweigh the risks.

For example, while the educational costs of immigrants’ children are borne by American taxpayers, “as adults, the children of immigrants (the second generation) are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population.”

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated undocumented immigrants pay $11.74 billion per year in taxes. They work and purchase goods, and services and they contribute $12.6 billion to the American economy. Seventy-five percent pay into Social Security, from which they will never benefit. Undocumented immigrants never qualify for Medicaid and food stamps. They have started 28 percent of all new U.S. businesses.

Finally, many studies show immigrants commit fewer violent crimes than native-born resident, not more. I am tired of reading about these immigrants breaking the law and how fast that devolves into calling them “illegal aliens.” No human being is illegal.

At the same time, I read nothing about those white collar criminals who destroyed the lives of so many Americans by causing the Great Recession. They never seem to experience a crackdown by an ICE-like governmental agency bent on enforcing financial laws.

Most of us agree our immigration system is broken. But how can it be reformed with such a divided Congress? Much of the political energy today is narrowly focused on immigration crackdown, which may well hurt us all.

— Mary Barnes is a resident of Springfield Township.