Regglebrugge says nobody in his industry thinks hiring native-born Americans is even an option. If the supply of foreign workers dries up, American growers will get out of the fresh fruit and handpicked produce trade entirely — a process he thinks is already under way.
"The ultimate question is not who will do the work here. It's whether the work will be done here or whether the work will leave the country."
On the other hand, some American workers who did not want to lose their jobs have lost them anyway in the onslaught of low-wage immigrant workers that began in the late 1980s. In the drywall installation trade in California, for example, academic studies have documented the erosion of wages and other benefits, and the eventual collapse of the drywall installers union, after contractors began hiring immigrant laborers.
But that still leaves us with the facts on the ground today, and now the American economy is deeply dependent on immigrants — not merely on immigrants in general, but specifically on undocumented immigrants. A 2009 study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that undocumented workers make up 40 percent of the brick masons in this country, 37 percent of drywall installers, 28 percent of dishwashers, 27 percent of maids, and 21 percent of parking-lot attendants. The sheer economic shock factor in abruptly running off that large a contingent of the national workforce would be staggering.
There also is a more high-end problem. Among people pushing for reform is a contingent that says a punitive restriction-based approach to immigration will damage the country badly in high-tech and professional fields, where international competition for highly qualified immigrants is global and intense.
David Leopold, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says our immigration system already is a messy proposition for the legal immigrants, whom American companies, universities, and hospitals must competitively recruit.
The total number of visas available in the country in any given year, for example, is not tied to the needs of industry. Visa availability has more to do with decades-old policies aimed at reunifying the families of immigrants who are already here, and even that system is a mess. An August 12 VVM story explained that the current system sets the same cap on visas for Mexico as for Belgium, so that families in Mexico seeking permission to join relatives here legally may wait 20 years before their cases even come up for review.
An immigrant who comes here to take a prestigious position at a company or university can wait a decade for a green card granting permanent residence, Leopold says, only to find at the last minute that he didn't win the visa lottery. He comes here, launches a career, puts down family roots, and then years later discovers he's out of luck.
"It's a very unattractive situation to come into if you are highly educated and you have skills that are marketable elsewhere," he says.
Other countries that want to recruit the same people have streamlined their systems. "Canada and Europe understand this," he says, "and they are marketing themselves to the best and the brightest that would normally come here."
Irina Plumlee, an immigration lawyer in Dallas, says hiring a highly qualified immigrant is not cheap. It's the employer who must pay the government fees and legal costs.
"Let's say you pay $5,000 to $6,000 to get an initial work permit [for your prospective employee], which is good for three years," she says. "Then let's say you would spend another $5,500 to extend that for another three years. If you want go for a green card, that's about $10,000, ballpark."
One immigrant, $20,500. Why pay that much to hire a foreigner? Plumlee says employers pay it because in many industries and professions, the search for top talent is now a highly competitive global quest.
"Each country wants to select the best and the brightest for itself, and I think the immigrants play that game as well."
Leopold says the American system, already archaic, will only become more forbidding if Congress starts threatening employers with jail for getting the paperwork wrong and begins expelling immigrants on a wholesale basis for status violations. Then, he predicts, most American employers will just stop hunting for top global talent.
But the immigration issue is not only about immigrants. The flow of people across borders is a fundamental element of the nation's international trade policy, of which the North American Free Trade Agreement is the centerpiece.
NAFTA is an attempt by Canada, Mexico, and the United States to create a combined market bulky enough to compete and bargain effectively with Europe and the Pacific Rim. It bonds the United States at both hips with Canada and Mexico.