Farmers are Feeling the Burn of New Policies on Migrant Workers

migrant workers
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Farmers who may have banked on Donald Trump’s promises of reduced regulations and taxes are in for a rude awakening now that a major threat has come to their workforce.

An estimated 1.3 million farm workers are migrant workers with no legal status in the United States, and with increased border controls – not to mention the impending border wall with Mexico – the future looks bleak for America’s farmers and the migrant workers they depend on, whether they’re here legally or not.

Why Is This Such a Big Deal?

Reducing the number of migrant workers entering the country for farm work or sending migrant workers already in the U.S. back to their countries of origin could have disastrous effects on the nation’s food system.

A 2014 study from the American Farm Bureau Federation showed that closing borders to migrant workers could lead to higher prices for some foods, and a recent report commissioned by the National Milk Producers Federation estimates that retail dairy prices would double if immigrant workers were no longer able to work on American dairy farms, costing the U.S. economy more than $32 billion.

But that’s not the only problem: if the migrant workforce is reduced, we may not have enough food to go around.

“If it’s strictly an enforcement-only, build the wall and deport all of our farm workers, then we’re going to have serious problems when it comes to growing food and providing enough food to feed ourselves in this country,” says Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau.

The problem facing American farmers is particularly grave in California, where more of the nation’s food is produced than in any other state, and where an approximate 70 percent of the farming workforce is made up of illegal migrant workers, according to estimates from the University of California, Davis.

“If you only have legal labor, certain parts of this industry and this region will not exist,” Harold McClarty, a fourth-generation farmer in Kingsburg, told the New York Times. “If we sent all these people back, it would be a total disaster.”

President Trump’s Plan for Migrant Workers

While the image of migrant workers is associated with illegal immigration, many migrant farm workers actually enter the country legally with a H-2A visa, which allows people to work in the U.S. for a short duration and does not fast-track them for immigration or residency.

President Trump has noted that while “a lot of people” will continue to come from south of the border for farm work, “it’s going to be done through a legal process.” However, he hasn’t given any details as to what this process might be, leaving lots of people nervous.

Not only do many farmers rely on farm workers with admittedly iffy paperwork, according to the New York Times, but recent crackdowns on the H-2A visa have left some farmers scrambling. According to NPR, an estimated 40 percent increase in applications in the past five years has led to delays that have already cost a number of farmers in Georgia six-digit losses.

The Myth of Migrant Workers Taking American Jobs

Many proponents of sending migrant workers back to their countries of origin, particularly those who are here illegally, claim that this policy will increase the number of jobs available to Americans. Industry insiders, however, note that this is far from the reality of the situation.

“The notion that immigrants are taking these jobs away from American workers is simply not true,” explains Randy Mooney, a dairy farmer from Rogersville, Missouri, and the chair of NMPF’s board. “Dairy farmers have tried desperately to get American workers to do these jobs with little success — and that’s despite an average wage that is well above the U.S. minimum wage.”

Cornell University’s Thomas Maloney notes that the low price of milk, fixed by the federal government, is a key element forcing farmers to hire migrant workers to keep costs low enough to turn a profit.

What’s more, it appears that if a ban were placed on migrant workers in the U.S., much of our food production would be exported to other countries. Bloomberg estimates that up to 61 percent of fruit production would be shifted outside the U.S. if such a ban were to be put in place.

American Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall told the Huffington Post, “We’re coming to a point where the American people need to make up their mind if they want to import their food or import their labor.”

At this point, it’s a waiting game to see if the current administration will make good on all of its campaign promises regarding migrant workers.

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Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.