This might seem like an odd time to write about the rituals of summer when the frozen ground is covered by seven inches of snow. This time of year, however, is when the important niche rural business of corn detasseling makes plans for summer hiring of local teens. While only 1% of corn grown in Nebraska is devoted to seed corn production, detasseling is a time-honored rite of passage that contributes to the social fabric of towns and indelibly marks us as Cornhuskers.
Summers for many Nebraska young people are defined by the harsh, intrusive ringing of an alarm clock. A predawn bus arrives shortly thereafter to transport the barely-conscious teens to local cornfields. Adults, often teachers, needing part-time summer work find great opportunity as well. With locally run, homegrown detasseling operations, the supervisors form a tight-knit cross-generational bond with the youth as they walk shoulder-to-shoulder through this amazing summer ritual.
Those who grew up detasseling tend to lionize it as the years pass. This Nebraska nostalgia tends to soften some uncomfortable truths: Detasseling is hard; Detasseling is long. It involves entering wet morning fields, fighting corn rash, and working until the sun is too hot.
But detasseling pays in many ways. The early lesson of linking effort to reward pays dividends for a lifetime. Nebraskan twelve and thirteen-year-olds have the tremendous opportunity to begin building a resume while putting some money in their pockets, while seasoned veteran teenagers stand to bring home $13-$17/hour. It is one of the best-paying summer jobs that a young person in Nebraska can get. Hardworking teachers can earn between $3500 and $5000 in just a few short weeks.
As we seek to build upon the legacy and opportunity of detasseling, there is an often-overlooked immigration complexity at play: Certain farmers need labor. Our H-2A visa system has been integral to keeping the Cornhusker State the nation’s third-leading producer of corn. This system allows persons who are not Americans to work here temporarily under strict rules when local labor markets cannot fill the demand. However, there must be clear evidence of labor shortage so that jobs cannot be taken away from Americans, or wages unjustly bid downward. A delicate balance exists.
When the H-2A visa system is incorrectly applied, it can destroy local businesses and unfairly allow profit-taking on the backs of people from far away. It’s not only about jobs; it’s about ensuring that traditions like teenage detasseling will always have a decided place in our social and economic ecosystem.
A related immigration matter involves E-Verify, an Internet-based system that allows businesses to compare an employee’s Social Security number and other information to records available to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to confirm employment eligibility. Recently, I cosponsored the Accountability Through Electronic Verification Act, which would permanently reauthorize the use of the E-Verify system and require its use by all employers.
While most of our immigration debate centers on the border, there are multiple other considerations to ensure legal visitation, legal entry for work, and legal process for citizenship. A secure border secures the vibrancy of the legal immigration system; a properly analyzed labor market secures the well-being of seasonal businesses who need temporary help while protecting Americans from “rent-seeking” corporations.
I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth retelling. A New York radio station once called me to ask why Nebraska’s measures of well-being were off the charts. I gave a detailed answer about our respect for the dignity of work, responsibility, and the importance we give to authentic community. Thinking back now on that question, maybe I could have answered with one word: “Detasseling.”
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry