Opinion: POTUS just declared war on U.S. Ag

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Dave Dickey

Sometime late this summer, you may detect a rotting smell waffling across California as the nation’s fruit and vegetable crops slowly decay in the fields.

An outrageous statement?

Perhaps not.

That’s because California growers may find themselves collateral damage of President Donald Trump’s expanded war on undocumented immigrants. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly signed a pair of sweeping memos this week that would turbocharge federal authority efforts to round up and deport undocumented immigrants.

The memos, in part:

  • Authorize the hiring of 10,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to round up undocumented immigrants and the hiring of another 5,000 agents for the Border Patrol
  • Permit the United States to immediately return Mexican immigrants caught at the border back home rather than allow them to remain in the U.S. awaiting their deportation hearing
  • Allow for expedited deportation hearings of any undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for less than two years

Taken to its logical conclusion, one could imagine routine ICE raids where immigrants, legal or otherwise, congregate – the nation’s harvest fields, especially California, Florida, and Texas, as well as the dairy industries in Wisconsin and Iowa.

Trying to calculate just how many undocumented immigrants work in U.S. agriculture is a little murky. But there is consensus the number is significant. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that “at least 50-70 percent of farm laborers in the country today are unauthorized.”

And a Department of Labor study found that most of U.S. agriculture’s undocumented workforce has been in the country for more than a decade — and are highly trained and experienced.

Mass deportation of undocumented ag workers would create chaos. That’s a fact.

A 2012 Economic Research Service paper concluded that “a large reduction in the number of unauthorized workers in all sectors of the U.S. economy would lead to a long run reduction in output and exports in both agriculture and the broader economy.

But in chasing higher profits, our nation’s fruit and vegetable growers are also in part responsible for creating and fostering use of an undocumented workforce.

U.S. growers hire undocumented workers in part because of the federal government’s H-2A temporary agricultural worker program isn’t working. The program is designed to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to do temporary or seasonal agricultural work like harvesting crops.

But the American Farm Bureau Federation says the program provides less than 4 percent of needed hired workers, and growers find themselves required to hire lawyers to work their way through the program’s complexities.

Unable to hire enough legal immigrants or those with temporary work visas and unwilling to pay higher wages to attract citizens to do the nation’s backbreaking picking, U.S. growers take their chances with undocumented workers, rather than face the prospect of food rotting in the fields.

It’s a dirty little secret that Kelly’s memos could blow wide open.

The AFBF estimates if U.S. agriculture loses all undocumented workers, agricultural output will fall between $30 billion and $60 billion annually and consumers could expect price hikes of 5 to 6 percent, especially for fruits, vegetables and meat.

Congress needs to become the adult in the room.  Now.

Because without responsible and effective undocumented worker reform that provides a stable and legal workforce, agriculture will lose.  Bigly.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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