America’s dairy farms are contending with a new and little understood outbreak of the bird flu. While the new virus, known as H5N1, will likely spare the general population, The New York Times reports, “there is a group of people who are at high risk for infection: the 100,000 men and women who work on those farms.” It isn’t just these workers’ daily exposure to infected animals that leaves them vulnerable—but the fact that many are Spanish-speaking illegal migrants, per the Times.

Put another way: A potential viral epidemic is being made worse by the gross exploitation of low-wage workers imported into the US homeland.

“This sector of workers,” an organizer for the United Farm Workers told the Times, is “at the very, very highest level of risk in terms of having no social safety net.” Illegal migrants don’t get sick leave, often face termination if they take any time off, and are unlikely to report unsafe working conditions to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or other public authorities. Ranchers and farmers hire them for just this reason: Which employer wouldn’t prefer a totally dominated and exploitable workforce with no bargaining power to speak of?

That’s why Cesar Chavez, the founder of the UFW, ferociously opposed illegal immigration and made a point of alerting federal authorities to the presence of such workers. “The illegal aliens are doubly exploited,” he said, “first because they are farm workers, and second because they are powerless to defend their own interests.” It’s also why, as Michael Lind notes in his book Hell to Pay, Mexican-American civil-rights groups like the American GI Forum pushed Congress to restrict the use of migrant farm workers and, in the 1950s, denounced then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson for his lax approach to detention camps and deportations.

“Some employers prefer to lord over latter-day serfs.”

The usual excuse proffered by the farm lobby is that—but for hyper-exploitable workers compelled to forgo the most basic protections, even amid a bird-flu epidemic—agricultural employers couldn’t fill job vacancies. Nonsense. The 2019-2020 National Agricultural Workers Survey found that 44 percent of American farm workers are illegal immigrants—meaning that a majority are native-born or legal-immigrant employees; in other migrant-heavy sectors, the share of illegals is even smaller (typically about a fifth). Thus, as Jim Robb, the vice president of alliances and activism at the restrictionist group NumbersUSA, told me, “there clearly are Americans who are willing to work those jobs.” It’s just that some employers prefer to lord over latter-day serfs, rather than bargain decently with citizen workers.

If serf-like wages and working conditions have become the norm in certain sectors, especially farming, it’s only owing to prolonged toleration from Congress and administrations of both parties. As the Clinton-era US Commission on Immigration Reform, led by the pioneering African-American lawmaker Barbara Jordan, found,

the availability of foreign workers may create a dependency on them. It has been well-documented that reliance on foreign workers in low-wage, low-skill occupations, such as farm work, creates disincentives for employers to improve pay and working conditions for American workers. … The resulting dependence … may adversely affect both US workers in that occupation and US companies that adhere to appropriate labor standards. 

This isn’t all that complicated. Farmers and ranchers who hire legal workers will struggle to compete against those who rely on illegal serfs. The more the latter get away with it, the more serf- or slave-like labor becomes the norm across a whole sector. And as the new bird flu shows, serf-like conditions can threaten (literal) sectoral health. You can bet, however, that implementing E-Verify in the farm sector won’t be part of the Biden administration’s response to the H5N1 crisis. Nor can native workers count on C-suite Republicans to crack down against a friendly industry.

America’s worst epidemic is an addiction to cheap and vulnerable labor. It brings together unlikely bedfellows like the farm-and-ranch lobby and open-borders progressives in the White House and beyond. Curing the addiction will require a similar pro-worker alliance across partisan and regional lines.

Sohrab Ahmari is a founder and editor of Compact.


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