Many say they can’t harvest their crops without immigrant labor
By Bill Tomson
Even before real-estate mogul Donald Trump called undocumented immigrants “rapists and murderers” who “have to go,” California contractor Carlos Castañeda was having difficulty hiring enough workers to pick celery and squash.
Now Castañeda and others fear Trump’s talk about erecting a “big beautiful wall” at the border and deporting millions could make it nearly impossible to find the guest workers they need — workers who would obtain legal status under most comprehensive reform bills.
“There are growers out there screaming for labor,” said Castañeda, a farm labor contractor in San Luis Obispo County in central California. “The people who are coming in are doing the work that not a single American would like to do.”
Trump’s brash talk about stopping undocumented immigration has excited GOP primary voters, turbocharged his campaign and spurred similar get-tough pledges from several rivals, including Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Scott Walker. But the view from many conservative-leaning agricultural communities is disgust, bordering on dread. Farmers say the candidate’s pronouncements have exacerbated already difficult labor shortages and brought counterproductive political attention to issues they had hoped to resolve quietly in Congress through legislation overhauling the nation’s broken guest-worker program.
Many say they will do everything in their power to educate the public about why Trump’s positions jeopardize their livelihoods — and the nation’s access to fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Trump is terrible for agriculture,” said California peach and plum farmer Harold McClarty, who relies on thousands of workers every year.
The candidate’s inflammatory talk, especially his vow to deport 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, poses a serious threat to U.S. farmers struggling to get their crops to market, said Frank Muller, who grows tomatoes, peppers, almonds and walnuts on his California farm.
“My farm would shut down today if you removed my … workforce,’ Muller said. “You hear all these disparaging remarks about immigrants, but these guys are the hardest-working, most dedicated people … I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Trump’s campaign declined to comment.
Roughly 1.4 million undocumented immigrants work on U.S. farms each year, or about 60 percent of the agricultural labor force, said Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farm Cooperatives, a trade group, and former deputy agriculture secretary during the George W. Bush administration.
Farmers say they depend on undocumented workers because Americans simply won’t do the back-breaking labor required and the existing guest-worker program for foreign workers is badly broken.
Tim McMillan, a Georgia blackberry farmer and owner of Southern Grace Farms, said he could easily double his operation if only he could hire labor.
“We’ve got the land, we’ve got the water, and we’ve got the management — we’ve got everything in place but the labor,” he said. “I can’t get American citizens to do the work. They just don’t want to do it.”
So farmers are keeping one eye on their orchards and the other on Capitol Hill, where they are hoping lawmakers will vote to overhaul the existing H-2A guest-worker visa program that many complain is cumbersome, costly and inefficient. The sheer numbers of laborers needed to harvest America’s fruit and vegetables cannot be met by H-2A, and its complicated rules and high costs push them to hire undocumented workers, said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association.
Farm groups have been quietly lobbying for years to make it easier to temporarily bring farmworkers from Mexico and other countries. Under the existing guest-worker program, preference for filling jobs is given to U.S. citizens. But in many cases, American workers don’t want to do the work.
“All this conversation that can be generally seen as anti-immigrant is not helpful,” said National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, whose group represents farmers across the country.
Finding labor is so difficult that farmers are changing what they grow, said Steve Freeman, a vice president at Pacific Coast Producers, a fruit packing company. Grapes, apples and pears are very labor-intensive crops, prompting some farmers worried about laborers to shift to growing almonds, pistachios and walnuts, he said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation has worked all year with House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to advance an overhaul of the guest worker program, said the group’s legislative director, Kristi Boswell. While that effort has seen progress, she said, the only legislation to come out of the committee has been an enforcement measure.
“Every single time farmers call me, they are stressed about whether they are going to be able to find labor … and the dialogue in the presidential race is politicizing the issue,” Boswell said.
Another big concern of farmers is that Congress will increase pressure on them to use the E-verify system to validate the status of their workers before lawmakers fix the visa program for temporary workers. And that’s another reason they fear Trump, who has made the expansion of E-verify a tenet of his immigration plan.
“We know the majority of our workforce, particularly the seasonal workforce, continues to be illegal or without proper documentation,” said Bedwell. “We’re not opposed to E-verify, but in advance of a program that gives us a legal workforce, it’s a death sentence for agriculture.”
The farm group released a study last year that found that if Congress passed an enforcement-only immigration bill — boosting deportations and tightening border security without improving farmers’ access to immigrant labor — fruit production in the U.S. would drop by as much as 61 percent, food prices in grocery stores would rise by 6 percent and the average net farm income would drop by as much as 30 percent.
A spokeswoman for Goodlatte said he believes that American farmers need a reformed guest-worker program, but “any solution to fix our broken immigration system needs to start with interior enforcement first.”