Our immigration system is broken. The negative consequences for each of us of that broken system are too numerous to ever list fully. But as a Utah County fruit grower, I can share with you my own experience.
In the four harvests from 2008 to 2011, our operation picked, packed and shipped almost 15,000 boxes of cherries, each weighing 16 pounds. This past season we simply could not get enough pickers — even at well over minimum wage, with some earning up to $20 per hour — so the 15,000 boxes dropped to 3,000. You can do the math, but a loss of 160,000 pounds of cherries means a reduction of $300,000 in gross revenue to our operation — $2 per pound lost from mechanical picking for juice. We also left over four tons of sweet cherries in the field because we lacked manpower.
Not all that lost revenue would have been profit. Much of it would have gone to wages and maintaining and improving our operations. But that lost $300,000 will now never be spent in Utah County at the farm supply store, the truck dealership or the grocer's by our workers or us; that revenue was not lost only to our business, but to our community as a whole. Economists will tell you that every dollar earned on a farm like ours "multiplies" six or seven times in the local community when paid out as wages, expenses and investment. That means that our loss of revenue resulted in as much as $2.1 million lost to the Utah County economy as a whole.
Even today we are wasting peaches, apples and pears because we cannot get them picked in time. The work is strenuous and temporary, and most Americans simply won't do it. We don't know yet how much labor shortages will cost us on these harvests, but the loss will be substantial both for the local economy and us.
That is why immigration reform matters to me, and why it should matter to you.
The amazing thing about Utah County is that we suffer at both ends of the immigrant labor scale. I've attended meetings in which leaders of the many high-tech firms located here express similar frustrations about shortages of engineers and programmers. Each immigrant engineer could help create as many as six other jobs for our own citizens. Far from protecting American workers, our dysfunctional immigration system is killing American jobs.
I've noticed that the comments following any article favoring immigration reform come from a group of people who claim to know more about farms and high tech businesses than those who actually run them. According to these readers, the only reason I can't get enough labor is because I haven't tried hard (or paid) enough. But to all those so quick to criticize our call for reform, I offer a standing invitation: Come on out to our farm and we'll put you to work! It's funny how none of those naysayers ever show up.
Utah County stands apart as immigration "Ground Zero" at both ends of the economic spectrum. There are few individual counties nationwide where agriculture and high-tech are such huge players in a single local economy, both industries desperate for prudent immigration reform.
We are not asking for open borders or so-called "blanket amnesty," nor are we endorsing any particular bill. Utah businesses of all types are asking our Congressional representatives to look at the needs of our economy, pay heed to the job creators and take a leadership role in passing an immigration deal we can all live with.
Robert McMullin is president of McMullin Orchards in Payson, Utah, a family-owned farm established by his grandfather in 1927.
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