Anxiety among farm groups as battle lines harden on immigration reform

When Donald Trump announced his campaign for president, he promised to deport all undocumented workers if elected. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best …[T]hey’re sending people that have lots of problems,” Trump told reporters at Trump Tower in New York City. U.S. farmers might have noted that Mexico also sends the majority of the workforce on American farms, a workforce that dropped more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2014.

Trump has since backed off a bit on his threat, telling 60 Minutes that he plans to deport two to three million undocumented workers, focusing on those with criminal records. But farm groups are still anxious, and hope to convince the next administration that developing a better guest-worker program — and not just tightening the border — needs to be a priority of any immigration reform.

“The reality of our farm labor force is that most are foreign-born and more than half are undocumented,” Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau, told FERN. The Farm Bureau, which is the largest U.S. farm group with nearly six million members, has reached out to Trump’s transition team to talk about immigration legislation, Boswell says.

“The Farm Bureau believes in securing our borders,” Boswell said. “We do, however, have some concern that focusing on [border security] alone will distract from supplying a legal and stable labor force.”

According to a report by The New American Economy, a group founded by Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg to push for immigration reform, the number of full-time equivalent field and crop workers in the U.S. fell by at least 146,000, or more than 20 percent, between 2002 and 2014. That amounts to a loss of $3.1 billion per year in on-farm sales, since farmers didn’t have the labor they needed to get crops out of the ground or off the trees. The same report estimated an additional $2.8-billion loss per year in non-farm spending on transportation of crops, farm-product manufacturing and irrigation, because there weren’t enough workers to support a full harvest.

The drop in workers has been blamed in part on the 2008 recession, but also on increased border security, which has made it more difficult for farmworkers to travel back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico to see their families. A report from the Pew Research Center found that 140,000 more Mexicans left the U.S. than came into it between 2009 and 2014. Most of the 1 million Mexicans who returned to Mexico in that period listed “family reunification” as their reason for returning.

Craig Regelbrugge, national co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, told FERN that an “enforcement-only or enforcement-first approach,” in which the emphasis is on deportations and border security, would cause “irreparable damage to major chunks of our agricultural system. And those consequences would ripple out to the rest of the nation.”

Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau, said in an interview with NBC News that an enforcement-only approach to immigration reform would cost the country $60 billion in agricultural production.

Already, a shrinking workforce has hurt U.S. farmers. “People are fallowing their ground. People can’t harvest everything they have to produce,” Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association, which represents produce growers in California and Arizona, told NBC News earlier this year. “There’s demand out there that can’t be met. Wages are going up dramatically.” Nassif endorsed Trump in the early days of his campaign and is a member of his agricultural advisory committee.

Major U.S. farm groups, including the American Farm Bureau, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) and Western Growers, more or less agree on what a legislative solution to immigration reform should look like, starting with a revised guest-worker program.

“A solution that solves the problem must get two things right,” said Regelbrugge. “It must somehow deal constructively with the current experienced workforce in agriculture. And it must provide a modern, streamlined, functioning, and more market-oriented system for people to come, contribute their talents and leave when the work is done.”

Many of the major U.S. farm groups have come together under the Agriculture Workforce Coalition to call for a revamped system that would let farmers and employees decide the terms of employment, from agreeing to a contract or allowing employees to move at will from job to job. A worker’s visa would last for three years of year-round employment. The current guest worker H-2A program only allows for temporary, seasonal labor, which makes it unworkable for dairy farmers and others who need employees on-site 12 months a year.

Farmers complain that the application process to hire an H-2A worker is a swamp of paperwork. One survey of H-2A employers, conducted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers, found that administrative delays caused workers to arrive on average 22 days after the date they were most needed.

In 2013, the coalition supported a comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate that would have allowed farmworkers to renew their visas after they returned home for a few months and even called for a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. That bill, which passed by bipartisan vote in the Senate, 68-32, and was then killed by House Republicans, also called for the USDA to administer agricultural-worker visas, rather than the Labor Department, which currently manages guest-worker programs.

Farm groups say that as much as they need new workers, they also need legislation to address the status of workers already in the U.S. “From the employer standpoint, the current workforce is the trained and trusted workforce,” said Regelbrugge. “We want them to stay in agriculture. Deporting them would obviously be something we all oppose, unless they’re criminals, but these people are all hardworking people.”

NCFC, along with the Farm Bureau and others, currently recommends that workers be allowed to stay in the U.S. with the caveat that they would work in agriculture for a certain number of years. At that point they could apply for permanent legal status and work in whatever industry they chose. However, “legal status” does not necessarily mean full citizenship, a point that suggests farm groups may be willing to compromise on their 2013 stance.

Considering those demands, some of Trump’s appointments could make the ag community nervous. For example, Trump’s choice of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General would suggest that a guest-worker program won’t be the new administration’s priority. Sessions has “opposed nearly every immigration bill that has come before the Senate in the past two decades that has included a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally,” says The Washington Post. “He’s also fought legal immigration, including guest-worker programs for immigrants in the country illegally …”

There is “hope and anxiety all at once” in the agricultural community over Trump’s election, said Regelbrugge. There is hope that the new president will cut back on the regulatory red tape that has encumbered programs like H-2A. And there’s anxiety, because some of the people in Trump’s transition team “have been anything but friends of agriculture toward resolving the [immigration] problem.”

Both Boswell and Regelbrugge said they were confident that some type of agriculture reform was possible under the incoming Congress and the new administration.  “Agriculture has a lot of sympathies on both sides of the aisle,” said Boswell.

“Most people in Congress realize that agriculture is different,” said Regelbrugge. “Farming is rural. It’s arduous, intermittent and migratory” — all factors that don’t make it appealing to Americans who would rather work other jobs, he says.