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Fix illegal immigration? How about ending the restriction on youth employment?

Fix illegal immigration? How about ending the restriction on youth employment?

Wayne Hoffman
May 17, 2023
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May 17, 2023

Last legislative session, lawmakers got hung up over a toothless proposal on illegal immigration. The measure, Senate Joint Memorial 101, passed the Senate 25-10 but drew strong objections from conservatives who decried it for promoting amnesty for illegal aliens. The issue did not get a hearing in the House. 

The troublesome section of the memorial asks Congress to pass immigration reforms that include “An effective process by which persons currently present in the United States without lawful status and who are gainfully employed and their immediate family can obtain work authorization or residency status, without a pathway to United States citizenship, provided said persons have no criminal history beyond their immigration-related violations, and provided  further that an appropriate fine is assessed and paid in satisfaction of their immigration-related violations.”

The proposal got support from southern Idaho Republicans and the leftist-Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. They argued about the availability of workers and tended to view with skepticism the idea that the U.S. will, or should, deport the 20 million illegals living here.

But the crux of the illegal immigration controversy is that Americans don’t want to do the work that farmworkers do. I’ve heard this same complaint over and over for years. Americans just won’t tend crops, prune trees, set siphon tubes, and so on. 

The question that needs to be asked — and rarely is — is why? Why don’t Americans want to do hard work? Why won’t they work in agriculture, where the domestication of livestock and cultivation of plants has been the basis of thriving societies and cultures for thousands of years? And what can be done about it?

Most Americans of a certain age started working young. When I was 10, I climbed ladders to rooftops, crawled under houses, and into attics to fix air conditioners and commercial refrigeration equipment. When my dad was 10, he worked at a car repair shop. Most successful people I know talk glowingly about their experiences as youngsters learning a trade or skill and earning money. Today’s youth are hard-pressed to recount similar experiences. 

Today, youth employment in America is frowned upon and, in large part, illegal. For every farmer wondering where they’ll get the next generation of workers, there’s a youngster sitting on a couch playing video games and streaming TV shows. 

Youth employment is governed by a complex intermingling of state and federal laws. Idaho law basically prohibits youngsters under 14 from working. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which was initially designed to cover interstate employment matters, is now used to block youth employment in places where the government considers equipment “dangerous” — a term so broad as to disincentivize restaurants from hiring kids to bus tables out of fear a regulator will fine the owner for also having a meat cutter in the kitchen. 

Federal law has also been misinterpreted as applying to any business where money is being transacted across state lines, and that can be as trivial as a credit card reader sending and receiving transaction data. Idaho also requires employers of minors to keep a separate record of every young person in their employ. Both laws tie working hours to public school hours, even if a youngster is homeschooled or attends private school. 

Young people who don't want to work grow into adults who also don’t want to work. And that has exacerbated America’s employment troubles of late. Moreover, the heavy emphasis from public schools on kids going to college is incongruent with a policy that forbids work; it virtually guarantees that young people will emerge from their post-secondary schooling with college debt. 

Eliminating restrictions on youth employment by the state would put Idaho at odds with federal law, yet the list of benefits for youngsters is extensive. It could help kids: 

  • Earn money to pay for college or other expenses and learn the value of money;
  • Give them experience and skills to make them more competitive in the job market;
  • Develop a sense of responsibility and independence;
  • Learn the value of hard work, problem-solving, and developing a work ethic;
  • Learn about different cultures and perspectives, and create adult connections and interactions;
  • Help them to build self-confidence and self-esteem;
  • Connect them to Idaho jobs and careers they might want to work in after graduation.

Idaho should end restrictions on youth employment. It is a solution that could very well be considered part of the larger question of how to deal with the lack of agricultural workers while also further making Idaho the place young people want to stay and raise their children who would benefit from the opportunities Idaho has to offer. 

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