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Immigration and the farm economy in Fresno

Many of the problems with poverty and immigration I brought up in my last post are exemplified by Fresno, California.

This article in the Washington Post describes the poverty in a city which just happens to be surrounded by "the richest farmland in the world."

. . . Fresno is still, in many ways, a farm town. The city's dominant industry, agriculture, depends on a cheap, seasonal work force that keeps renewing itself as successive new waves of immigrants arrive.
. . . .

But, [the mayor] said, illegal immigration is perhaps the greatest challenge to Fresno. "We're going to have to secure the border, he said, "reform the illegal immigration system and create a plan that addresses the 4.5 million immigrants in California that doesn't involve amnesty or sending them back."

I'm curious about a few things. First, why does the agricultural sector "depend" on low-wage labor in the middle of the richest farmland in america? Is it because food prices are so low that even the best farmland in the world won't produce enough money to pay farm laborers a decent wage and still generate a profit? Is there no attempt to enforce a decent minimum wage in the agricultural sector? If not, why not?

Who owns this "richest farmland in the world"? Are these owners local residents who depend on Fresno for their shopping and entertainment, and who would suffer along with the rest of the city if the economy there deteriorates? Do the owners of this farmland spend their profits locally?

Who buys the crops that the land around Fresno produces? Is there a vigorous market for these crops, or are there only one or two big corporate purchasers (think ADM or Cargill) that can use their market power to depress prices?

Who eventually consumes these crops? Local residents? People in Brazil? Cows? Is the government paying any subsidies to the growers in order to keep prices low?

The effects on poverty of keeping illegal immigrants out of Fresno would seem to depend on the answers to some of these questions. If the entire agricultural economy of the Central Valley is set up to keep agricultural prices as low as possible, and if the distribution of farm income is tilted too steeply towards non-local corporate landowners and purchasers, then the city of Fresno is going to be poor regardless of whether we seal our borders or not.

But no one's talking about these issues. Instead, the only suggestions for reform are coming from politicians like Tom Tancredo, whose solution is simply to get rid of immigrants by whatever means necessary. In the absence of any alternatives, it's easy to understand why the people of Fresno would sign on to that agenda.

(Update: The LA Times has this article on Fresno's "brain drain.")

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