American agriculture will feel the loss of immigrant workers

July 12, 2017

President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources--because it was nourished by so many cultures, and traditions, and peoples.” He couldn’t have been more right, even to this day. However, there is an unsettling reality arising under the new administration of President Trump. Trump has made clear that he intends to bring the metaphorical hammer down on undocumented immigrants, and intensify the way in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) functions. Unfortunately, an immigration crackdown could have a drastic effect on American agriculture, and the economy. In 2015, agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $922 billion to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of America; and of this $922 billion, America’s farms contributed $136.7 billion. This just goes to show how important America’s farmlands are to both our economy and our stomachs.


"You think a gringo's gonna be pruning pistachios?" Pablo, a Californian farmworker, asked a journalist when asked about Trump’s tough talk on immigration. Pablo has been working in California fields for 17 years, and says he’s only ever seen immigrants like him doing this work. He’s not convinced he’s the one taking jobs from U.S. citizens, and the evidence seems to be on his side. In 2010, United Farm Workers Union put out a campaign willing to connect unemployed American with farm jobs. Out of thousands of inquiries, only three people accepted. According to United Fresh Produce Association, about 1.5 to 2 million farmworkers are employed in the United States. Of this, 50 to 70 percent are estimated to be undocumented workers. It’s not surprising that most American’s don’t flock to farm labor jobs, because most Americans aren’t going to pack their bags and move out to farmland to do these physically demanding and low-paying jobs. One thing we need to question is: if Americans won’t harvest the food that ends up in stores and on our tables, then who will?


With Trump’s new plan, there is the potential that there will be fewer left to harvest the fields and keep agriculture on its feet. Even just six months into Trump’s administration, we are starting to see the impacts of his immigration crackdown. In his first 100 days, arrests of suspected undocumented workers have risen 38 percent. This is on top of the already-record 2.5 million deportation that took place under the Obama Administration. Undocumented immigrant families are starting to pack up their lives and head back to Mexico, preferring to head back under their own accord rather than being stopped by ICE and deported. This act, known as self-deportation, allows families to prepare, pack up, and say their goodbyes instead of being uprooted from their lives without any warning or any chance to let their loved ones know what’s happened to them. Self-deportation and ICE raids are raising more and more issues for the farming community and the farms that are employing these workers. One example of this is with Miguel Hernandez and his family, as documented in a recent story in Wisconsin Watch. Miguel has worked for Doug and Toni Knoepke on their dairy farm in Pepin County, Wisconsin for 16 years. This past May, due to the threat of deportation, he packed up and headed back to VeraCruz, Mexico, taking with him his wife and 5-year-old American-born son, who has no idea what life will be like in Mexico.


Miguel and other farmworkers’ departures in turn leave the Knoepke’s with a loss of workers and minimal time to find replacement assistance. Even though many might see an immigration crack down as a good thing, it’s important to understand just how crucial undocumented immigrants are to agriculture. The effects may not be felt immediately but economists, for example, predict that “Texas and New York would experience the second- and third-largest economic drops, witnessing a 10-year decline of $51 billion and $33 billion in output, respectively.” Overall, the elimination of undocumented workers would reduce the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2.6 percent, with an annual loss of $434 billion and cut the cumulative GDP by $4.7 trillion over 10 years. Since capital will adjust downward to a reduction in labor, everyone will be affected including farmers. This downward capital adjustment will push farmers to either raise wages, downsize, switch to a less labor intensive crop, or mechanize their farms.


 “I don’t know where the industry would be without (immigrant labor) right now,” Doug Knoepke says. “We’re relyin’ on it and what it does for Wisconsin and our economy” Knoepke continued, the loss of immigrant farm workers will “bring us to our knees.” This isn’t just an issue for the Knoepke’s. It’s also an issue for farmers across the country. In Durand County alone, four families have left and headed back to Mexico due to word of ICE agents in the area. In California, asparagus farmer Joe Del Bosque said “workers are so afraid of being arrested in the field that he’s struggling to find hands to pick his crop.” Under Trump’s immigration crackdown this loss of workers is only going to increase, in turn affecting local economies and our overall national economy. What will we do when we start to feel the true effects of the loss of 30 to 50 percent of our agricultural workers? How will that affect our GDP? As produce prices increase and there are fewer and fewer options when we shop, then we will notice the effects; then we will see just how important undocumented immigrants are to our livelihoods.


 In order to protect both immigrant workers and farmers, National Farmers Union (NFU) and Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) supports immigration reform that meets the labor needs of U.S. agricultural producers. NFU and WFU believe the growing consequences of a broken immigration system must be addressed in a bipartisan effort at the federal level. NFU policy goes further and supports the improvements to the Temporary Guest Work Visa (H-2A) Program to help the agricultural community by allowing a more flexible and reliable visa program. It is important that immigrants have the resources to come to America legally and work. NFU  supports reasonable paths for citizenship for those who are here without legal status, are of good character, pay taxes and are committed to becoming fully participating members of our society. It’s essential that those here without documentation can come forward and be given the tools they need to work here legally.


The immigration system must be flexible enough to address the needs of businesses while protecting the worker’s interests. Farmers Union supports effective agriculture work programs and the prioritization of family. NFU policy states, “Immigrants are part of both our rural and urban communities. We must adapt to this reality and recognize the critical role immigration has played in our nation’s history and economy.” NFU has taken a clear stance on the importance of good immigration reform and how crucial immigrants have been to America. Immigration reform should be done under circumstances that are caring, beneficial, and legally just for all involved.  Farmers Union policy reflects similarly to what President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965, “our land flourished because it was fed from many sources,” one of the biggest sources being the other “cultures, traditions, and people” that hard working undocumented immigrants continue to bring to our country. It’s important that we take into consideration how to help this community of workers as they continue to help our land flourish.




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