July 7, 2006
Texas agriculture has an acute need for a dependable supply of labor. A study of the current labor supply and recent history suggest that many of the tasks that must be performed on farms and ranches will not be done by most citizens of the United States.
The knee-jerk reaction of many is to say, "Pay Americans more and they'll do those jobs." Reality destroys that argument. Profit margins in agriculture are so thin, that while there are many jobs at $9 per hour, there are few at $15 or $20 per hour.
A guest worker program is essential. Amnesty, however, is a huge mistake, and the two are not the same. While it may be possible for some industries to pay a much higher wage and obtain labor on a short term basis, those industries are far more likely to simply move to other parts of the world where the labor supply is more plentiful. That solution is simply not feasible for agriculture, especially if Americans want to maintain a domestic supply of food and fiber. The American Farm Bureau Federation conducted an economic study of the issue and concluded the price tag of losing this labor supply would be about $9 billion.
The House bill would eliminate the supply of workers our industry so desperately needs. The Senate bill would allow many of those workers already here to achieve citizenship. If that happens, most of these new citizens would leave the farm and pursue employment in urban areas.
Of course, these large numbers of new citizens could further strain the social services system already under siege in the U.S. Moreover, amnesty would have the unfortunate effect of rewarding those who willingly broke our immigration laws and encourage future illegal immigration.
A new immigration policy should meet a few simple objectives. We must secure the border to know who is coming into our country and why. Any policy must include a functional guest worker program. Amnesty should be rejected outright.
Texas Farm Bureau supports the legislation sponsored by our U.S. Senators from Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn. Their amendments accomplish all these objectives. They and others have offered a plan of immigration policy that will allow for the supply of labor to flow freely from one country to another, particularly Canada, Mexico, and the United States. This plan also calls for the combined border security so necessary in a post 9-11 world. It would provide agriculture with a fair wage, called the prevailing wage according to the local pay scale. Texas farmers and ranchers are firmly behind this responsible immigration policy.
Unfortunately, it will probably be some time before the rhetoric subsides from either camp in this debate. We need the solutions produced by statesmanship. This is no time to govern by sound bites.
Editor's note: January's wildfires left the North Texas town of Ringgold devastated, and the rampaging fire caused concern to towns east of its center. Faced with the possible devastation of her ranch and home, here's what went through the mind of one North Texas resident.
By Anita Harkey
Twenty-five miles to the west, a wildfire is consuming the town of Ringgold and is headed this way. Winds advance it at 40 miles per hour across the dry Texas prairie. My eyes are gritty with dust and I smell the smoke. The back door of the ranch house is open as I load the pickup.
The exodus from Ringgold joins evacuees from Nocona, the only town between the fire and our little community of Saint Jo. My son, Coulter, calls from town to describe chaos. Through the crackle on his scanner, he has heard that 50 fire departments are fighting to contain the blaze: city-size trucks from Dallas, Ft. Worth, and Denton; and volunteer fire trucks from neighboring communities. I hear the sirens from here, a couple of miles out of town. Aircraft are sucking water from stock tanks to dump on the fire, which is now 20 miles wide. It has jumped the back-burn outside Nocona.
If they can't contain it soon, or if the wind doesn't shift, we'll have to get on the road. My husband Jim says, "Tell Coulter to get back here. We've got to get the cattle up." If they can round up the herd and move them into the holding pens, there may be time to load some of them into stock trailers.
My job is to save as much as possible from the house. I grab family Bibles and papers, photographs, paintings, and armfuls of quilts made by three generations of women. I pick up the two rusty branding irons which were used by Jim's grandfather and great-grandfather. They are just about all that remain from the family's ranching in days when trips to market by horse-drawn cart were occasionally disrupted by Comanche.
The sun has set through a haze of dust and smoke, but there is still a glow on the horizon. It is the fire. Down in the pasture, two sets of pickup lights jerk around and I hear honking, shouting, and distressed lowing as Jim and Coulter herd the cattle. The town's siren blares and I call Coulter to ask what he's hearing on the scanner.
"They're evacuating Saint Jo because of the smoke."
"Do I have time to get more things from the house?"
"One more pass through the house, then start watering the roof. We'll call when it's time to get out."
Choice of what to take is now daunting. The adrenaline is pumping, but my hand pauses on its way to pick up an object as I freeze with indecision. I reach for the silver service, then stop. Which relative did it come from? Which side of the family? I feel no attachment to it. It is valuable, but I realize it is not valuable to me. I run to my bedroom for something I passed over: a collection, accumulated over many years, of little natural wonders found on walks and horseback rides. Bleached bones, dried grasses, dark seed pods, patterned moth wings, a snake skin and rattles, fossil shells and river-worn stones.
I move on, trusting my hands. I take a favorite coffee mug; I abandon a watercolor by my mother. I leave behind things I have owned without pleasure. They have baggage I am not willing to carry, am in fact pleased to let fall away.
Jim calls: "Close the house and spray the roof." I'm ready, grateful I've had time to fill the truck. I turn on the faucet and hold my thumb over the end of the hose to lift a stream of water over the house. Whipped by the wind, it soaks me as thoroughly as the roof.
As I move slowly around our home, my extended arm aching, I look in each window, memorizing the room it frames like an illuminated still life: the antique furniture passed down through the family; the stone hearths; the old Mexican pottery; the books. I imagine the rooms glowing with firelight, disappearing.
Something changes. I look up. The spray of water now rises in a steady arc. The wind has paused.
I drop the hose and call Jim, who is crowding the last of the cattle into the holding pens. He says he'll check with the neighboring ranchers. "I'll call you back. Sit tight for now."
I ease down on the patio bench, but my body is still geared for flight. I think about getting a few more things from the house, but I feel oddly finished with that. I'm spent and empty. Jim calls: "It looks like we're okay for now; we can spend the night in the house." I walk slowly over to the truck and look inside. Tomorrow I'll move everything back in, and face the things I left behind.