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Commentary: U.S. workers will pick that lettuce -- for $1,000 a week

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Fresno, CALIFORNIA (CNN) -- There is nothing like coming home, and I got the chance to do that today thanks to an invitation to join in a lunch forum hosted by the Kenneth L. Maddy Institute at California State University, Fresno, which sets out to train new leaders.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Workers' sense of entitlement opens jobs for immigrants.

I like the sound of that. We need new leaders. Just look at the recent shoving match over immigration reform, which happens to be the topic that we'll be discussing over lunch. I'm told that many in the audience will have some connection to agriculture.

Big surprise. Everyone in Fresno is connected to agriculture, whether they realize it or not. That's the whole point. While many Americans tell themselves that they don't benefit in the least from illegal immigration, my friends in the San Joaquin Valley don't have that luxury. They're up to their necks in benefit. Oh, there are costs, too -- to schools, hospitals, jails, etc. But, after it's all said and done, Fresno and other agri-cities come out way ahead.

How do I know? Because they're not exactly asking illegal immigrants to leave. In fact, farm groups were part of the chorus calling for comprehensive immigration reform, including a call for new shipments of guest workers. That's because they know that without immigrant labor -- legal if can be, illegal if must be -- my beloved hometown would shrivel up like a raisin in the sun.

While you're just as likely to find illegal immigrants working on construction sites, or making beds in hotels, or cooking up breakfast in the local diner, many of them still gravitate to farms and ranches. And it's a good thing they do, farmers and ranchers say, because these are not jobs that Americans want.

Consider the strawberry farmer in Oxnard, California, who told CNN that not once in 25 years of planting and harvesting had an American citizen ever asked for a job picking strawberries.

Immigration restrictionists claim that Americans would line up for even the dirtiest and most distasteful jobs if only wages were higher. How much higher? A reader told me that he'd gladly go pick lettuce around Salinas, California -- for $1,000 a week.

I can't wait to share that story with the farmers. I hope they don't cough up their Caesar salads. It's not just that, at those wages, lettuce pickers would earn more than many cops and firefighters, nurses and teachers. Or that salads would cost as much as caviar.

What I find interesting is that the reader -- as a proud American worker -- didn't hesitate to make the demand and, in fact, he felt that earning any less would be beneath him. And we're surprised that many farmers and ranchers -- and countless other employers -- prefer to hire immigrants and rarely give those of us born in the country a second look.

It's not just the money. It's our sense of entitlement. And for what -- all the effort we put into being born on this side of the border?

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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