Immigration and grapefruit

Published 11:07 pm Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Presidential campaign has brought immigration policy center stage.  Many factors shape Americans’ attitudes toward immigration, like one’s vision for our nation’s future and whether our existing immigration laws should be enforced.  The economic question of whether immigrants take Americans’ jobs also shapes attitudes.  One part of this issue involves the considerable benefits we realize from importing “people” to perform jobs Americans don’t want to do.

Economics often deals with abstract issues.  But for me, when I think of the interaction of immigration and jobs Americans don’t want to do, I think of grapefruit.  Before moving to Alabama, I lived in Mission, Texas, next door to an orchard.  If I didn’t hate grapefruit, I could have climbed the fence and taken some for breakfast.  Still, the blossoms in the spring produced a most wonderful smell.

By November the grapefruit was ready for picking, by hand.  The trees were not very tall, but reaching many branches still required ladders.  I always thought it might be fun to pick some until I got bored.  I definitely would not want to do this as a job: going up and down ladders and carrying heavy sacks of fruit would be tedious and exhausting.  And from observing the workers in the orchards each fall, no Americans want to pick grapefruit for a living.  Most workers hailed from Central America, and some undoubtedly were in the U.S. illegally.

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If we prevented immigrants from picking grapefruit, we would need to find Americans to do these jobs.  I already passed.  Would you be willing to?  We might need to institute a draft or use prisoners to pick grapefruit.  If I were an orchard owner, I would fear the damage to fruit and trees from young Americans forced to pick grapefruit against their will.  The market economy relies on voluntary transactions for a reason!

Suppose we tried paying enough to get Americans into the orchards.  Ask yourself how much you would need to be paid to pick grapefruit all day, day after day.  Now compare this with current workers’ pay.  And imagine how much grapefruit would cost if all of the pickers had to be paid as much as you.

But wouldn’t the higher wages paid to fruit pickers make our nation richer?  In short, no, but the reason depends on whether America produced grapefruit without immigrant workers.  American grapefruit could be priced out of the market, with only imported fruit available. This would be a loss for us, as many grapefruit-lovers like the distinctive red Texas grapefruit.  And declining land prices would hurt orchard owners.

If we continued producing grapefruit, higher prices for consumers would more than offset the nice salaries of the pickers.  Orchard owners might also develop fruit picking robots, resulting in more expensive grapefruit and no high paying jobs.  Preventing immigrants from picking grapefruit will not increase American prosperity.

One might argue that the real problem here is Americans’ lost work ethic.  If we weren’t so lazy, or didn’t think that work was beneath us, perhaps Americans would pick grapefruit for reasonable wages.  I am reluctant to comment on other peoples’ values, but I can speak for myself.  Although I am not interested in picking grapefruit for a living, I did mow the lawn, trim the bushes and plant many sago palms when we lived next to the orchard.  I was willing to work to advance my plans and values.

This is what it means when 300+ million Americans demonstrate unwillingness to do a job.  I went to college so I wouldn’t have to pick grapefruit for a living – actually, to avoid working on an auto assembly line, since I grew up in Detroit and not Texas.  We all make plans based on what we want to do in life.  I became an economist, and was teaching at a university in south Texas because the students had life plans that did not involve picking grapefruit.

The economic consequences are just one consideration for immigration policy.  But if we do not allow immigrants to do jobs Americans don’t want to, the question becomes, Will you pick the grapefruit?

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.  Respond to him at and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.

About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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