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The Farm Bill and Immigration

October 25, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

In marking up the farm bill today, the Senate Agriculture Committee may have ignored Congress’s best shot at addressing the issue of illegal immigration.

Despite a lot of talking, the five-year farm bill that the committee agreed on keeps crop subsidy programs almost entirely unchanged. The subsidies provided by the farm bill go to growers of a select group of crops, consequently lowering their prices. Writing for the Huffington Post, Nancy Scola, explains that effect the subsidies have on developing countries when coupled with a free trade agreement.

>American produce in Jamaican markets is cheaper, of course, in part because of the enormous subsidies that prop up American agriculture. Jamaica is in incredible debt to global lenders like the IMF and World Bank. And in an effort to dig themselves out, they embraced the neo-liberal open-market approach that the IMF likes best. And the effect, naturally, is that the Jamaican tuber has to compete head to head with the American spud given a leg up by its government. To some extent, a potato is a potato. And so Jamaicans buy the cheaper ones.
>But U.S. ag subsidies are in some ways the worst of both worlds. They send American products out into the world with a distinct advantage. That no doubt weakens the ability of Caribbean farmers, for example, to compete in the new world order. But it’s not like they’re really all that helpful for their American counterparts. More than 2/3 of U.S. farmers don’t get any commodity payments at all. It’s mostly the big corporate agricultural companies who benefit.

And in Mexico, where most of the illegal immigrants in the U.S. are from, Sally Kohn writes that “imported corn now dominates the Mexican market.”

>Although agriculture is less than 5% of Mexico’s gross domestic product, more than a quarter of Mexican’s still make their living as farmers. And most of the poorest of those farmers grow corn. Over 60% of Mexico’s cultivated land is planted with corn, most of which are small family plots. In all, 18 million Mexicans, including farmers and their families, rely on corn for their livelihood.
>In Mexico – the birthplace of corn – one-out-of-three tortillas is now made with imported maize. An estimated two million family farmers who can’t compete with subsidized U.S. corn have been driven from their land.

…most likely to the U.S.

It’s interesting how this effect of the farm bill relates to the immigration bills that have been tossed around in the 110th Congress.

If the Senate had mustered the 60 votes it needed this week to break a filibuster of the DREAM Act, Democratic leaders said that they would move on to considering other immigration measures, including the AgJobs bill. That bill would have allowed illegal immigrants who have been working on farms for at least two years to obtain legal status. It also would have streamlined a guest-worker program for importing foreign workers that farmers say is currently too expensive to be worth their while.

The AgJobs bill could have been a round-about touch-up to a couple of the farm bill’s negative effects. Since subsidized crop growing is a mostly automated operation, the workers who would have been legalized by the AgJobs bill generally work for growers of unsubsidized specialty crops (fruits and vegetables), who rely on cheap immigrant labor. So by giving illegal immigrants — many of whom have emigrated to the U.S, in part, because of the damage done to their native economy bar U.S. farm subsidies — an extra incentive to work on farms, the bill would also have been a boon for America’s poorer, unsubsidized farmers.

The AgJobs bill may still be proposed as a floor amendment to the farm bill, but as Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said earlier this week, "If we can’t make progress with children [DREAM Act], then I don’t know how the business community thinks they get AgJobs.

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