The “Immigrants Are Taking Our Jobs” Myth

Via Mark Perry, here’s a story about a California vineyard that tried to hire U.S. citizens to pick grapes. It didn’t turn out well, despite the unemployment rate in that county being over 9%.

Salisbury started with 40 applicants, but only seven actually finished the job.

The sixth-generation farmer immediately cut twenty applicants because they only wanted cash so they didn’t jeopardize their unemployment checks.

After an application process, their pool of scheduled interviewees was down to 22; of those, four didn’t appear, so they just took all 18 locals.

For about seven hours of work, pickers would get somewhere between ten to twelve dollars an hour; eighty dollars was guaranteed. Salisbury says workers were given breaks of fifteen minutes every two hours and half an hour for lunch.

That, however, was tricky too. Salisbury started out with 18 people. Four days later, he was down to just seven, and he doesn’t think any of them will be back next year.


I don’t often tell this story, but in graduate school I signed up with a temp company to help contribute to the household finances. One company I got assigned to was a local event management company, a job that involved little more than brute labor in setting up and tearing down equipment for different events. One of their regular gigs was turning the University of Oregon’s in-door football practice facility, the Moshofsky Center, into the country’s largest pre-game party tent. We had just a few hours to turn this…

into this…

This involved setting up dozens of tables and many hundreds of chairs. That’s pretty menial work for a Ph.D. in the making, but after working two events for the company they began asking the temp place specifically for me. And the last time I worked for them, when I told them I was moving on and wouldn’t be able to help them out anymore, they were disappointed to see me go.

I’m about as proud of that as I am of anything else I accomplished in my life. Beyond that repeat temping, I’ve worked for four different employers who were happy to rehire me after some time away from them. And one of those other jobs was also menial labor (stocker in a building supply store) while I was deeply embedded in the intellectual world of grad school. I like what that all says about me, although I don’t often boast about it.

But here’s the kicker…I don’t actually have that great a work ethic. I’d consider myself middling at best. When I was a bike messenger one of the things I liked was that I could take a day off whenever I wanted. When I left that job due to a knee injury, I was pleased to get a 4 day, 24 hour a week job that didn’t require me to be at work until 2:00 p.m. I like my current job because I mostly get to set my own schedule, don’t have to go into campus every day, and don’t have to do any more work in the summer than I choose to do. I don’t want to reinforce the lazy academic stereotype–In the school year I normally have a 45-50 hour week, which sometimes rises above 60 hours, when I don’t go into campus I’m normally working from home, and in the summer I teach two online classes as well as trying to catch up on my academic reading. But I get to set the schedule, which makes all the difference, and the beauty of-line classes is how little time they take (after the very time-intensive initial creation of them). So, yeah, I’m a little lazy. But even I wouldn’t have any problem picking grapes if I was unemployed.

But some of my fellow citizens apparently find it beneath them; thank god for the illegals.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
This entry was posted in Economical Musings. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The “Immigrants Are Taking Our Jobs” Myth

  1. Troublesome Frog says:

    I’m always ambivalent about these stories. Yes, I’m a big fan of us stealing smart, hard working people from other countries and adding them to our labor force here, so I’m glad to see that we have a good pool of immigrant workers who do a great job.

    However, I’m consistently surprised by employers who bitch about not being able to find anybody who will do the job at the particular price they’re willing to pay. Such is the way of markets. I’m frustrated that I can’t get anybody to sell me $1.10/gallon gas anymore. It annoys me that my new car cost me $15,500 last year rather than $12,000. But that’s life. If you can’t get the goods and services you want at a given price, then you pay more or you live without them.

    I’ve often wondered what percentage of the cost of produce is harvesting labor. I don’t know much about farming, but it seems to me that it would be largely capital costs, transportation, and pay for workers during non-harvesting time. The grape farmer said that his labor costs for harvesting were $500/ton and that was 3x normal. That gives us between $0.083 and $0.25 per pound.

  2. Dr X says:

    hmmm… picking grapes might be more grueling than it sounds. I didn’t follow a straight course through school. I’ve done light and heavy landscaping (try carrying railroad ties up and down hills), sodding, paved driveways and parking lots, laid brick patios, did a lot of painting, some light carpentry, dry walling, waiting tables, dishwashing, bartending and security at a Chicago club full of knuckleheads (my weekend night grad school job). I haven’t done field work, but I imagine it would be physically pretty grueling. Probably half the people who quit woke up the third day and were in too much pain to work. I was actually an employer in several of the above and finding people hardy enough to make it through the first few days was the difficult part. The easiest job was, security, but it was boring. The most stressful–waiting tables. The most fun–time passes quickly if you’re busy–bartending. Most physically grueling–sodding, or paving on days when you’re mostly digging through clay before laying gravel. Shoveling gravel isn’t that great either. I’ve always kind of liked physical work, but people who aren’t used to it can be kind of shocked by full days of it. During the summer, it was actually a little easier to get help for the hard labor. College kids were actually the best hires most of the time. They kind of got a kick out breaking their backs. It’s more depressing and painful for a 35-year-old man whose body rise to the challenge as easily, but I encountered some interesting cases, like a former ad exec who had cancer than nearly killed him and had been out of work for two years and had three kids. He hung in there and did a good job, but he was in a lot of pain for the first couple of weeks.

  3. James Hanley says:

    Most physically grueling…digging through clay [and] Shoveling gravel …

    Been there, done that, although not for pay. I’d probably rather haul railroad ties.

  4. Dr X says:

    On the paving job (I didn’t own that business) we had an older guy who drove the paving power box, which was really the hot seat. He would drink 2-3 six-packs a day during work. It was okay with the boss for some reason, but that was back in the day when white collar workers also drank at lunch time and didn’t have to hide the fact that they did. I was just a grunt laborer, but I didn’t drink beer during work. I drank a lot of water and pop and ate like a horse, and still had trouble keeping my weight up on that job.

  5. I agree the “immigrants are taking our jobs” mantra is largely a myth we, or some of us, tell ourselves to elide the nuances involved when it comes to opposing more liberal immigration policies. And I am coming around to the view that immigration is almost always a net good to the receiving society and economy.

    But at the same time, the “immigrants are only doing the jobs native born Americans don’t want to do” seems to me also a myth. I suspect that for all the anecdotes that resemble the California farmer’s plight, there are at least a few of a non-immigrant who would be willing to do a job for the same wage commanded by an undocumented worker. Even the quoted example above suggests at least 7 people (for now) have a job who might not have had it with the competition from undocumented workers (granted, of course, that they might not be back next year).

    Maybe it is all for the best. I’m coming around to the view that a more liberal immigration policy is the most humane approach to the issue. But it won’t come at no cost. Some people will suffer even if a significantly larger number will benefit.

  6. Matty says:

    I’m not sure if the comparison is really immigrants vs citizens or formal vs informal economy.

    The sixth-generation farmer immediately cut twenty applicants because they only wanted cash so they didn’t jeopardize their unemployment checks.

    Surely people who are in the country illegaly would also have to be paid cash, or is your system such that it is possible to open a bank account and be registered for income tax without basic ID checks?

  7. James Hanley says:

    formal vs informal economy.

    There is that, too. In the U.S. you normally need a Social Security number to open a bank account. I’m not sure if that’s federal law, but I think it is. So with illegal immigrants it’s almost all informal economy. And of course there are legal residents/citizens who dip into the informal economy when its convenient.

    That people would need to worry about jeopardizing their unemployment checks for such temporary works says something about the incentives in our system, too.

  8. BSK says:

    Juxtapose the number of people willing to pick grapes for money with those willing to pay to go pumpkin/apple/berry picking…

  9. “I’m about as proud of that as I am of anything else I accomplished in my life.”

    You’re familiar enough with my present situation to know how much I appreciate this. I’ve had an awful week this week so far, and small stuff like reading this piece really goes a long way. Thanks.

  10. James Hanley says:


    You’re welcome. And best of luck on your new career path.

  11. James Hanley says:

    Juxtapose the number of people willing to pick grapes for money with those willing to pay to go pumpkin/apple/berry picking…

    Even more, who will pay for the privilege.

    Still, I suspect both the duration and the intensity of their efforts would fall short of what the vineyard owner expects and needs.

  12. BSK says:


    No doubt! It’s just funny that some people WON’T do it for minimum wage while others WILL PAY TO DO IT! I always call those little expeditions or similar type things “poor people fantasy camps”.

Comments are closed.