Border Enforcement-Only Policies Will Drive Up Food Prices, Study Finds

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American production of fruits and vegetables could drop. Farms may go out of business. And if House Republicans push for a border enforcement-only immigration overhaul, Americans could pay more for groceries, according to a new study out Monday by the historically conservative Farm Bureau. The study analyzes how three scenarios — enforcement only, enforcement with a path to legalization, and enforcement with a path to legalization that includes a guest worker program — would impact the farm sector, including farm output and food prices.

Farmers and consumers stand to lose the most from an enforcement-only measure, which would include border security measures, like aggressive federal and state deportation efforts, mandated use of an electronic employment system, and harsh penalties for employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants.

Such a measure would include a loss of most, if not all of their 525,000 undocumented work force, with a drastic drop in vegetable production (23 to 47 percent) and fruit production (30 to 61 percent), while food prices for consumers would increase by five to six percent. If enforcement was paired with some measure for legalizing undocumented immigrants, vegetable production would also decline between 10 percent to 22 percent and fruit production would drop between 13 percent to 28 percent, while food prices for consumers would increase by two to three percent. And if it included a guest worker program that’s patterned after the Senate immigration reform bill, vegetable production would drop a modest two to nine percent, fruit production would drop three percent to 12 percent, and food prices for consumers would increase by one to two percent. The study authors foresee that this last scenario would also shed undocumented workers because they assume that “some of the legalized undocumented workers [will] eventually [return] home… and that the guest-worker provisions … were limited to only those sectors that demonstrated a particular need for foreign workers rather than simply a generalized reduction in labor availability.”

Reform efforts have languished in Congress in recent days, with Republicans calling for stringent enforcement efforts before any type of legalization can be taken up. But the latest study confirms past state efforts at enforcement-only legislation. Crackdowns on undocumented farm workers in Georgia and Alabama had the unintended consequence of leaving rotting crops and fallow fields. By one account, Georgian farmers lost at least $74.9 million in unharvested crops because 40 percent of the total work force had been pushed out by anti-immigration legislation.

And as it stands with the current immigration system, farmers across the nation are already finding it difficult to fill their need of workers: in Maine, farms have turned to using machines, but robot technology is unable to differentiate between ripened and rotting fruit and in North Carolina, only seven American workers stuck to their job through the end of the growing season.