Trump asks farmer support on shutdown, hints at farmworker reform

In a speech to the largest U.S. farm group, President Trump asked American farmers on Monday to take his side on the partial government shutdown over a border wall and said that with a secure border, “I’m going to make it easier” for farmworkers to enter the country. “Because we want to take people in to help our farmers, et cetera. Very important,” he said.

Trump devoted the bulk of his hour-long speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in New Orleans to the ongoing fight with Congress for $5.7 billion for a wall along the southern border. “We have to do the border,” said Trump. “So I am asking all of our citizens to call your Democratic lawmakers and ask them to vote for a bill that secures our borders, protects our country and now re-opens our government.”

He also said, “We’re doing great in trade talks,” referring to China. He told the audience of 6,000 that the White House was winning trade deals “that will get you so much business you won’t believe it.” Currently, the trade battle with China has cost farmers billions in sales.

To buttress his point on the need for a border wall, he called on stage Arizona rancher Jim Chilton, whose 50,000-acre ranch abuts the U.S.-Mexico border. Drug smugglers and unauthorized immigrants frequently cross the ranch after entering the United States, according to news accounts.

“Mr. President, we need a wall,” said Chilton, who supported Trump’s election in 2016. “I hope we see the need for a wall all around and the length of the border.”

“When we have proper security, people aren’t going to come, except for the people we want to come,” said Trump. “We’re actually going to make that actually easier for them to help the farmers, because you actually need these people … You’ve had some people come in 20, 25 years, incredible people. Then they go home and can’t get back in. This is not going to happen.”

A White House spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment. Documents on the White House focus on enforcement of immigration laws, such as expulsion of people in the country illegally, and say little recently about agricultural labor. The White House has backed steps such as E-Verify, an electronic database of people eligible to work.

Farm labor reform is a top priority for the AFBF, which says there is a shortage of workers for the physically demanding labor of caring for livestock or cultivating and harvesting crops. Half or more of farmworkers are believed to be undocumented. Grower say the H-2A visa system, for short-term guest workers, is unduly difficult to use and too often provides workers when the need has passed.

The AFBF has no position on the wall specifically. In a position paper, it advocates “immigration reform that addresses border security, fixes the legal immigration systems and provides farmers access to a legal and stable workforce.” That would mean legal status for unauthorized farm workers already in the country.

Last May, the administration said the departments of Labor, Agriculture, State and Homeland Security would collaborate on modernizing the H-2A guestworker program. The ag sector welcomed the initiative but said it would not resolve the issue of undocumented farmworkers.

House Republicans were unable to agree on immigration legislation last year when they were the majority in the chamber. Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, who retired at the end of 2018, won committee approval of a bill to create a year-round H-2C agricultural visa — available for the first time to livestock farmers, meatpackers and the timber industry — that offered legal status to undocumented farm workers who registered, returned to their home countries and applied for a visa to return to the United States.

Democrats such as Sen Dianne Feinstein of California have backed bills to create a “blue card” that would authorize the presence of undocumented farm workers and offer them a path to citizenship. Those bills made little progress when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress.