The Des Moines Register recently claimed in an editorial that “Iowa’s economy depends on 84,000 immigrant workers,” including legal and illegal aliens. That statement is misleading at best.
The editorial calls for more foreign workers and for elected officials in Iowa to implement E-Verify. E-Verify would be beneficial nationwide and would deter many illegal aliens from entering the United States. However, the problem with the editorial is on the topic of immigration, in which the Des Moines Register states that business owners should “ramp up pressure on Congress for immigration reform that allows for an adequate workforce.”
The editorial board insinuates that an “adequate workforce” doesn’t already exist in the United States, which is a talking point that the farm lobby adamantly pushes as it seeks more foreign labor. But what the Des Moines Register and the farm lobby fail to realize is that farms struggle to find American workers due to the low wages and inhumane conditions offered. When Americans don’t feel they are being offered a fair wage or friendly environment, they will look somewhere else for work. Foreign workers brought to the U.S. through the H-2A program don’t have that option and must work for the farms that hired them or face expulsion.
In an effort to protect both native and legal foreign-born workers from predatory wage abuse, the federal government introduced the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). Farmers who bring foreign labor to the U.S. through the H-2A program must pay all of their workers at least the AEWR. The AEWR for non-range work in Iowa for 2018 is $13.42 per hour. Non-range farm labor is agricultural work dealing with crops and is important to Iowa as corn and soybeans are two of the states’ largest exports.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data for 2017 lists the average annual salary at $27,700 for crop, nursery, and greenhouse work in Iowa. After doing the math, farmhands on average earn $13.32 per hour. Most farmhands are not earning the AEWR, and even that is below the living wage for a family in the state. If farmers want labor, they need to adjust to the economy and offer better wages.
But how can farmers afford to pay their employees more? The agricultural industry is much better off than in the early 2000s. Profits have seen a substantial increase. In 2002 after subtracting total farm production expenses from the market value of agricultural products sold, Iowa’s agricultural industry had a net profit of $1.97 billion. When adjusted for inflation, that would have been $2.51 billion in 2012. In 2012, Iowa’s agricultural industry had a net profit of $7.11 billion — an increase of 183 percent.
With profits like that, Iowa’s farms could afford to pay employees more before resorting to foreign labor. However, instead of offering a living and fair wage, many Iowa farmers have elected to line their own pockets with the hope that the federal government will allow them to import more cheap labor or look the other way while they hire illegal aliens.
Contrary to what the Register’s editorial board thinks, Iowa’s agricultural industry doesn’t need an “adequate” foreign workforce. It just needs to provide a wage that allows Americans to support their families.