U.S. citizens comprise 25 percent of all domestic crop laborers. Another 21 percent are legal immigrants. Together, they make up nearly half of the agricultural workers that provide the nation's food supply. Yet the media is conspicuously silent on these legal farm workers, while devoting copious copy to the interests of their illegal competitors and their employers.
The Agricultural lobby is a powerful opponent of state legislatures who want to verify the legal status of workers or reduce illegal immigration through interior enforcement, both of which the Ag lobby views as a threat to its illegal labor supply. Through the press, they warn readers and legislators of the dire consequences they say will result from the government taking away their illegal workers without giving them expanded access to legal workers. They are particularly active in Florida and Georgia, and most of the local press is unwilling to challenge them. The news coverage from the the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Miami Herald (via News Service of Florida), the Palm Beach Post, and WOKV (Jacksonville) is remarkably similar to the Ag lobby's talking points.
Those outlets rarely, if ever, mention the federal H-2a visa program that provides farmers with unlimited foreign workers for seasonal work. I've seen only one article (from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) this year that quotes a farmer begrudgingly admitting that he uses the H-2a program.
But the reporter immediately dismisses the program by quoting the same farmer describing H-2a as "cumbersome." Indeed, employer advocates frequently insist that the Obama administration's H-2a regulations - which include minimum wage and working standards - pose an unrealistic burden on farmers. They may have a point, but I have yet to find a story that quotes an H-2a official or H-2a worker on the question of whether the visa holders are too pampered or overpaid. Presumably, none of the reporters I've read have thought to ask.
While the Ag lobby whispers sweet nothings into reporters' ears, the media sends a clear message to legal farm workers: We're just not that into you.
Of course, the press isn't in the sweets and flowers business, but theirs is a harsh Valentine for legal farm workers and their families who have much more at stake than broken hearts.
A February 13 article in the Naples Daily News is illustrative. The reporters showcase numerous "business owners, economic experts, and tourist officials" who weigh in on the E-Verify and interior enforcement proposals before the Florida legislature. Seven sources are cited who are critical of the enforcement proposals, while only one pro-enforcement group is briefly mentioned in support.
None of the sources challenge the claims that taking away farmers' illegal workforce would be "catastrophic," or that farmers "wouldn't have the potential pool of employees to hire from." The H-2a visa program is never mentioned. And anti-enforcement advocates are given carte blanch to blame American workers for illegal immigration: "You're not going to get people in the Facebook generation to go out and pick tomatoes," says a University of Florida history professor, "It ain't going to happen."
And what about the legal workers who are picking our crops? The Editor's Note says the article "is part of a series examining the upcoming legislative session, several proposed immigration bills, and how they will affect business, law enforcement and the people who could face scrutiny." Those are all viewpoints that deserve to be heard.
Tellingly, however, the series will not examine how the bills would effect the citizens and legal workers who stand to benefit. Like so many of their colleagues throughout the fourth estate, the Naples Daily News isn't interested.
JEREMY BECK is Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
Updated: Mon, Jul 24th 2017 @ 3:29pm EDT