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Modern Day Slavery Part 3 - The Real Cost

That glass of OJ is squeezing back
Huge hidden costs of cheap labor are borne by welfare agencies, schools, hospitals, police - you.

By Jane Daugherty
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Tuesday Dec. 9, 2003

Cheap labor puts fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice on millions of American breakfast tables every morning.

Cheap labor picks the giant crimson Plant City strawberries, glossy bell peppers and juicy melons, not to mention the picture-perfect Indian River grapefruit so popular in Japan and Europe.

The migrants who pick Florida's oranges are generally paid only 3.5 cents per half-gallon of fresh juice typically selling for $3.39 in supermarkets. Growers contend they can't pay more because of narrow profit margins and competition from Brazil, where pickers, including children, are paid even less.

Meanwhile, the rising invisible costs of cheap labor to harvest our crops are being shouldered by welfare programs, schools and hospitals required by law to treat anyone with a serious illness.

Many immigrants, legal and illegal, receive help from food stamps, infant and maternal nutrition programs, free and reduced-price school lunches, local health departments, churches and voluntary agencies. They increase demands on public safety programs and the criminal justice system. They require publicly paid translators and teachers of English-as-a-second-language.

Florida is among six states that receive the most immigrants, along with New York, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois and the No. 1 immigrant destination, California, where the National Academy of Sciences has estimated that immigrants' use of social services and schools costs every California household $1,200 a year in additional taxes. The academy projected the total cost to U.S. taxpayers for services to immigrants at $15 billion to $20 billion a year, while their economic contribution is pegged at $10 billion.

Harvard economist George Borjas served on the National Academy panel. An economic adviser to former California Gov. Pete Wilson, Borjas wonders whether Florida's cost per household for immigrant services may now be approaching California's.

"California has Silicon Valley and more high-tech industry, more manufacturing, more very rich people to bear the costs," Borjas said.

"In places like Palm Beach County that have huge agricultural holdings that draw migrant laborers, the impact on local taxpayers is even greater because there is no other large industry and most of the costs of services to immigrants -- public education, health care, law enforcement -- are borne by local governments."

Public and private agencies in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties spend at least $21.5 million a year on immigrants, according to a survey by The Palm Beach Post. And that doesn't even include medical care, medicine, food and income assistance programs.

For example, the Palm Beach County School District gets $2.1 million in federal money this year to help educate 7,100 children of migrant workers. The district spends another $5.6 million to help students whose native language is not English. In Martin County, the schools spend $4.5 million on ESOL classes for children, plus $1.2 million for English and high school equivalency classes for adult immigrants. In St. Lucie County, public schools spend $5.7 million on ESOL and another $800,000 on programs for migrants and their children.

And in Lake Worth (pop. 35,133), where nearly one in every three residents is an immigrant, city officials are furious because they say the U.S. Census failed to count many undocumented immigrants, depriving the city of much-needed federal grant money. A special code enforcement team cracking down on slumlike conditions has stumbled into numerous shabby houses and apartments crowded with migrant farm workers, sometimes 10 to a room.

The costs could be much higher but for one fact: Migrants who creep across the Mexican border to labor in Florida's fields don't want to attract government attention for fear of being deported. Thus, in their first years here, only a very few apply for help.

In fact, the Department of Labor says that 1,464 migrants interviewed in 2000 for its annual farm-workers survey were less likely to sign up for welfare programs than 10 years ago. Only 6.6 percent used food stamps in 2000, compared with 18 percent in 1993.

Laura Mullins, a director at the Farmworkers Coordinating Council in Lake Worth, attributes part of that decline to tighter eligibility requirements enacted in 1996 that, for instance, imposed a six-year residency requirement for food stamps.

"Fear is a big factor when they first get here," said Mullins. "If they're undocumented, they won't want any contact with authorities. It is also difficult for them to access services because of language barriers, but ultimately, if they are eligible for services, they'll use them."

Borjas and other labor experts say the California experience proves that as they become more familiar with the American system, migrants who have lived here for several years will begin to take advantage of it and receive services. And because migrants are so wretchedly poor, he warns, they will remain in poverty even when they become permanent residents and move on to other jobs, creating a new underclass that will increase the tax burden.

Unquestionably, migrants are some of the hardest-working people in Florida. Yet, for their labor, they get only 3.5 cents per half-gallon of Florida orange juice, according to a Palm Beach Post analysis of detailed production cost figures provided by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

With the average farm worker in the U.S. making about $7,500 per year, according to census figures, paying laborers an additional one cent a half-gallon would lift many farm workers above the federal poverty level.

But, "we're not likely to see any increase in wages paid to Florida citrus workers in the near future," said professor Fritz Roka, a University of Florida agricultural economist. "There are plenty of workers willing to work for the current wages... and the 2003-2004 citrus forecast indicates the harvest will be the largest in more than 10 years, which will glut the market and likely bring citrus prices down."

John Thomas of Thomas Produce Co., the state's biggest vegetable grower, says he can't afford to cut his margins any more.

"Our margin is down so low," Thomas said. "It's a tough business and it's getting tougher all the time."

Most consumers know little about the dilemma posed by farmers' profit margins vs. the migrants' struggle for survival.

Most taxpayers are also unaware of the involuntary burden they carry, said Borjas, himself a Cuban immigrant. "Unless you are unemployed and having to compete with immigrant laborers who drive down the wage scale, the losses are more diffused among the rest of the economy. Joe Six-Pack is hurt, but he doesn't realize how much it's costing him."

Joseph A. Kinney, a labor consultant who has frequently testified before Congress about injuries to workers, agrees.

"Agribusiness in Florida, California and Texas profits hugely from migrant laborers. But those large companies and the farmers who sell their fruits and vegetables to them don't have to pay the hidden costs incurred by the exploitation of those workers, most of whom remain in the U.S. long after they stop working in the fields," said Kinney, former director of the National Safe Workplace Institute, a nonprofit think tank funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the MacArthur, Mott and Joyce foundations.

"Our national immigration policy is to look the other way as long as uneducated Mexicans and Central Americans keep streaming into the U.S. to do the backbreaking labor to harvest the fresh stuff that winds up on our tables," said Kinney. "But would you buy it if you knew that glass of Florida OJ will wind up costing $5 when you factor in those hidden costs? That's a realistic ballpark figure when you add up how long these workers will be trapped at the bottom of our economic ladder."

Meanwhile, social and community costs for services for illegal immigrants continue to mount.

Earlier this year, Luis Jimenez, a Guatemalan severely brain-damaged in a car crash in February 2000, ran up over $1 million in bills at Martin Memorial Medical Center -- fully one-tenth of the nonprofit hospital's annual spending for charity care.

After more than a year, hospital officials said Jimenez, 31, a penniless landscaper and former migrant farm worker left with the mental capacity of a child, no longer needed acute hospital care.

Jimenez was spirited out of the hospital shortly after dawn July 10 and flown to a rehabilitation facility in Guatemala City where officials promised he would receive proper care. He is now living with his ailing mother in a rural village without his prescriptions.

The Jimenez case is not rare. A Jamaican here illegally spent 17 months in the same Martin County hospital where he ran up a bill of $500,000, before he was sent home to Jamaica.

The Jimenez case caught the attention of U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, who asked the General Accounting Office to study the costs of treating undocumented immigrants in U.S. hospitals. "We need to remedy this problem before we can no longer afford to take care of Americans," Foley said.

The mounting costs of treating immigrants like Jimenez already have prompted some Arizona emergency rooms to close their doors. Hospitals in Texas have passed costs of medical care for undocumented immigrants to local taxpayers. And the American Hospital Association estimates the national cost for illegal immigrant hospital care at "millions, possibly billions," with no precise figures because hospitals do not keep records on immigration status of patients, said Carla Luggiero, an AHA lobbyist.

In addition, Borjas, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says employment of immigrants has caused the shift of roughly $160 billion from the paychecks of low-skilled American workers -- many of them minorities -- into the profits of businesses who employ cheaper migrant labor.

In Florida, agribusiness is a prime beneficiary of that economic shift through the employment of as many as 81,000 farm workers, mostly migrants, in a peak harvest week, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. For Florida's growers of fruits, vegetables and nursery plants, cheap migrant labor helps generate a positive annual economic impact of $62 billion.

With agriculture second only to tourism in Florida, Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Bronson predicts that the trend is for consistent economic growth. "My vision is simple," Bronson said. "Get the 'Fresh from Florida' label in front of the consumers."

But to do that requires a mostly unseen army of farm workers with a social cost equally invisible to consumers. The fresh produce these mainly Hispanic workers pick may well be sold with the premium Fresh from Florida label, but the workers themselves are more likely to be fresh from the dire poverty of rural Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador.

Borjas, who has studied the impact of immigration for two decades, warns that many of the farm workers' families will be mired in poverty for generations, supported largely by taxpayers.

Sauveur Pierre, a Haitian-American who works in Belle Glade and Immokalee advising migrants of their legal rights, concurs.

"I have seen as many as three generations who can't escape the poverty," said Pierre. "The cost of living keeps rising faster than wages. They work hard for 20 years, and still they can't escape."

It's an old problem with a new face. Since the 1980s, most Florida farm laborers have been immigrants; about one in 20 were in the U.S. illegally in 1988. But the demographics have shifted from large numbers of Haitians, Jamaicans and Mexicans, many with families, to almost all Hispanics: Mexicans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, mostly single men who send part of their wages home.

The Inter-American Development Bank reported in October that money sent home to Mexico by immigrants working in the U.S. this year will soar to $14.5 billion. Only oil exports draw more foreign money into Mexico.

Today, eight out of 10 Florida farm workers are in the U.S. illegally, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Urban Institute, which studies immigration demographics and public policy.

The cheap labor syndrome is not confined to agriculture. Some of the migrants who came in the '80s and early '90s have moved to non-farm jobs. Some left for construction jobs in Georgia and the Carolinas. In South Florida, hotels, motels and condos in Naples and Marco Island use minivans to pick up Haitians and Mexicans in Immokalee to work as low-paid maids and dishwashers in beach resorts.

Others who have studied the progress of immigrant families fret over the future of migrant children.

The Urban Institute found one in five children in the U.S. -- and one in four low-income children -- live in an immigrant family. In Florida, it found 28 percent of the children of immigrants in 1999 had no health insurance; 43 percent live in families who have difficulty affording food.

Philip Martin, a University of California-Davis economist, frames the issue this way: "Permitting Mexican farm workers to enter the U.S. helps to hold down farm wages and thus food prices. The immigrants are eager to come, the farmers are eager to employ them, and because of their presence, Americans have more money to spend on non-food items.

"What is the trade-off? Some of the Mexican workers settle in the U.S., and they and their children are encouraged by low farm wages to move to urban areas to improve their lot. If they and their children succeed in urban labor markets, then the U.S. immigration miracle of giving opportunity to the poor of other countries is repeated. If they do not, then rural poverty in Mexico becomes rural and eventually urban poverty in the U.S."

And the number of immigrants continues to rise: 13 million have arrived in the U.S. since 1990, as many as 500,000 a year entering illegally. The Census Bureau, in fact, reported that in 2000, the foreign-born population exceeded 31 million, or about 11 percent of the population. If the trend continues, the foreign-born population will double by 2050.

With their exploitation, the hidden costs begin to grow and feed the cycle of dependency because these bitterly poor new arrivals assimilate more slowly than earlier immigrants.

"If any other U.S. industry used business practices that caused long-term social costs on this scale, literally billions of dollars a year, Congress would hit them with an impact fee or regulate the practices out of existence," labor analyst Kinney said. "But who's going to make the argument? Poor farm workers who came from worse poverty across the border who are here illegally? Giant companies piling up profits? The consumer who appears to be getting bargain-priced fruits and vegetables because they can't see the hidden costs?

"This is Big Agriculture's dirty little secret: They're still engaged in the shameful labor practices the typical American consumer believes ended decades ago. The reality is these workers will be trapped in poverty. Taxpayers of Florida, California, Texas, New York and the other states that absorb most of agriculture's throwaway people will pay the price for decades more."

jane_daugherty@pbpost.com


Photo Gary Coronado / The Palm Beach Post
Field greens for the Frost Belt: A farm worker in Palm Beach County hauls crates used for packing endive lettuce during harvest last month. For Florida's growers of citrus, tomatoes, melons, vegetables and nursery plants, the grueling work of migrant labor helps to generate an annual economic impact of $62 billion.
But cheap labor also generates significant hidden costs, costs that one national labor expert says are so staggering that an 8-ounce glass of fresh orange juice that retails for 42 cents from the carton really costs Florida taxpayers a whole lot more.

Graphic Where your $3.39 goes. Farm workers get 3.5 cents of the $3.39 retail price of a half-gallon of Tropicana not-from-concentrate juice.

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