Don’t bet on immigration reform being enacted in the United States, farm labor expert Philip Martin says. Even if immigration reform happened, the result would not be higher pay. Instead, we’d see reduced demand for farm labor through mechanization and farms going out of business.

Martin delivered the first lecture in the Auburn University College of Agriculture’s 2013-14 E.T. York Distinguished Lecturer series on Monday night. He is a full professor and chair of the University of California at Davis’ Comparative Immigration and Integration Program and editor of Migration News and Rural Migration News.

Martin is no radical. He pointed out he has been picketed by labor activists as well as produce industry leaders. As many journalists like to say, if you’ve drawn fire from both sides of a controversy, you must have done something right.

There’s a simple reason Martin predicts nothing will change: On one side of the debate is the “no borders” argument, which favors amnesty for all unauthorized immigrants and migrants and no control over border crossing at all. On the other side is the “no migrants” argument, which favors border enforcement and no or very low migration, and the construction of a wall separating the United States and Mexico. This dichotomy, Martin said, shuts down consideration of any middle ground. For this reason, the status quo has continued for the last 20 years.

“The debate is very polarized,” Martin said. “And those two sides are happier with the status quo than they are with the other side’s solution.”

The status quo is a U.S. agricultural economy in which most labor is done not by farm owners, but hired hands. Most are in the country without authorization, and most are from countries much poorer than the United States.

This is part of a global pattern set up by two kinds of inequality and three revolutions in the last 200 years: economic and demographic inequalities, and revolutions of communication, transportation, and human rights.

Demographic inequality is a state in which industrialized nations’ populations are shrinking while developing nations’ populations are growing. Economic inequality is such that industrialized nations have per capita income 10 times that of developing nations. These factors push poor laborers who aspire to a better life out of their homelands and pull them into rich countries. Most of the labor migration in the world moves from south to north because labor goes from poor, developing countries to seek opportunity in rich, industrialized countries, and wealth is concentrated in the north.

Immigrants founded this country. For most of our history, immigration was unregulated or lightly regulated. From time to time, nativists have pushed to curtail immigration from certain countries who threatened the cultural and economic status of the white English-descended founders and every other group that assimilated into American culture. As early as the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin complained that Germans would ruin Pennsylvania. When Americans discovered that accomplished Latin Americans who had perfected their mining skills in Mexico were threatening their control over gold mining in California in the mid-1800s, Americans imposed foreign miner taxes to make it too expensive for foreigners to compete. Similar crackdowns on Japanese and Chinese migrants to the West Coast occurred in the late 1800s.

But the U.S.-Mexico border was largely unregulated until the early 20th century because Anglo-American agribusinesses required a source of low-paid, low-skilled labor who wouldn’t complain about their low wages and poor treatment. With a porous border and wages that were low by our standards, yet still better than what was available in Mexico and Central America, American farmers’ cheap, reliable, docile labor supply was assured. Workers came here when there was work, and they went back across the border when there wasn’t. They kept their culture to themselves, and they didn’t threaten the dominant white, Anglo culture.

Douglas Massey, a migration/immigration demographer at Princeton University, has explained that this cycle of two-way migration went undisrupted until a series of immigration reforms in the late 20th century began to raise the risks and costs associated with crossing back and forth across the border. It became more likely that if you had braved the journey and paid and enormous sum to reach the United States, you weren’t likely to go back to your native country.

The three revolutions Martin talked about make it much easier to reach the U.S. and make it easier to obtain information about how to get here. Martin explained the impact of these revolutions here, but here is a summary of each:

  • The Transportation Revolution: After weeks at sea, it took a typical indentured servant four to six years to work off the debt incurred by moving to Britain’s American colonies. Now, it takes two to three years for a typical immigrant laborer to repay his or her airfare. If they paid a smuggler to sneak them into the country, their cost of $20,000 would take longer than the price of airfare, but the journey was much shorter.
  • The Rights Revolution: This affects migrants’ ability to stay in the nations to which they move. After the Second World War, most of the industrial nations increased the right to stay within their borders in order to prevent fascism from happening again. Most granted social or economic rights to residents in their welfare states without discriminating between citizens and migrants.
  • The Communication Revolution: It took weeks for an American Colonial Era indentured servant to get word back to his or her family in Europe to say how well things were going and how to reconnect with them. Not so today: Cell phones, the Internet, money wire transfers, and satellite TV make it possible to instantaneously vet conditions in other nations and figure out where to seek a better life, as well as to send word to relatives about how to cross international borders.

Here’s an astonishing figure: Less than 10 percent of farm employers in the U.S. hire 60 percent of farm workers. Most of the labor on farms is done not by farm owners, but by hired laborers, and Martin said most hired farmworkers are in the U.S. without authorization. Interestingly, while the biggest farm employer in the U.S., Dole, employes 15,000 migrant workers, Driscoll’s (you’ve probably eaten their berries) has NO farm workers on its payrolls, instead relying on labor contractors. These labor contractors are typically bilingual intermediaries who build work crews and bring them to the farms, which pay minimum wage plus 30 to 35 percent to take care of labor taxes. With unauthorized labor, somebody is pocketing that extra money, but it’s not going to the federal government to help with Social Security and FICA taxes.

In this arrangement, the corporate farms are doing just fine. The labor contractors are doing just fine. As for migrant workers? It’s a mixed bag. Take the community of Parlier, a California migrant farming town where the per capita income is $10,000 a year. The farmworkers of Parlier are much poorer than the typical American worker, whose average household income is about $50,000 a year. Housing is concentrated and cramped, with a population density comparable to that of Manhattan. But they’re still better off than they would be in Mexico, where they might not be able to find regular work at all. They came for a better life and for better opportunities for their children. So what about the children?

“If you ask their kids what they want to do with their lives, all they can tell you is they DON’T want to do what their parents do,” Martin said. “If you press them, they’ll say, ‘I want to be an astronaut,’ or ‘I want to be a football player,’ but with a high school graduation rate of less than 50 percent, that’s just not plausible.”

He did mention the town has a huge ag worker service economy. The town wants economic development, but that’s unlikely, given the state of the schools and employers’ desire for a highly educated workforce.

“The main ways out are government jobs like the working at the post office,” Martin said. “Or the military. Or a lot of them turn to gangs.”

Is there a saner way of managing immigration in the U.S.? Martin pointed to Canada.

“They have a point system, and the result is that half of Canada’s immigrants have B.A.’s,” Martin said. “Compare that to the United States, which relies on family reunification as a guide. The result is lots of low-skill immigrants.”