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Immigration reform: The issue that will not go away

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When Donald Trump won the White House last fall, America’s working class – including farmers – rejoiced. They saw a man who promised to fix Washington, cut red tape and bring jobs back to America.

For agriculture, it seemed like a win – except for those nagging, worrisome comments Mr. Trump made about smashing trade deals and deporting undocumented workers.

Now those worrisome comments are blowing up as real threats to our industry.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, a huge boost for U.S. farmers, is being renegotiated. Meanwhile president Trump shut down DACA, a program that shields some 800,000 young immigrants from deportation. Deporting these so-called ‘dreamers’ – 91% are employed – would cost the U.S. economy over $400 billion, according to the Center for American Progress. Apparently Trump is expecting Congress to come up with a plan that would defer such a tragedy. But until that happens, they live with an uncertain future.

For a man who came into power on the idea of getting the economy going again, sending these mixed messages is baffling at best.

Keeping promises

As these past few months unfolded, it became clear that Trump – unlike most politicians – wanted to make good on his campaign promises. We were never sure he was serious about doing away with trade or migrant workers, or if he was simply throwing red meat to his base. It was Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s calm voice that warded off trouble the first time president Trump threatened to tear up NAFTA. Shortly after Perdue was appointed, he brought a map to the oval office, and quietly pointed out the areas hardest hit by such a move – agriculture and manufacturing.

Ag got a reprieve that day, but NAFTA is now under a microscope, adding more uncertainty to your plate.

Immigration policy will also get another look, and it’s a problem that will only get worse the more it is ignored.

Migrant, undocumented workers have a big impact on agriculture, construction, and service industries like food and hotels. Like it or not, in this country there’s quite a bit of work done by folks who are probably not documented.

What are some core truths about the issue?

There are certain jobs in this country that don’t appeal to a large number of U.S. citizens.  It’s the same, whether you’re picking strawberries, cleaning hotel rooms or building houses.

“We went through the 2008 financial crisis and here in the central valley we were one of the hardest hit,” says Los Banos, Calif. farmer Cannon Michael. “Even with high rates of unemployment we could not get people out here to do this work who were not Hispanics, even though we have good benefits. It’s hot, dusty and sometimes long hours.

“If there are undocumented folks working somewhere in agriculture, they are not robbing jobs from people, they’re filling a need,” he adds. “Even if minimum wage goes up, and even when there is a recession, Americans don’t want this work.”

Fear-mongering over migrant workers taking U.S. jobs is a non-starter. Closing the borders or building a wall might be red meat to a certain group of voters, but such moves would cripple the U.S. economy.

In the same fashion, forcing products to be created in the United States instead of with cheaper labor elsewhere would only harm the poorest of Americans, who could no longer afford those higher-priced products.

Instead of political yammering, closing the borders or building a see-through wall, now is the time to find political leadership that will address the issue in an intelligent way. We do need border security, but the U.S. government must show compassion. Let’s stop treating people like thugs, or threatening to separate families. There’s a big part of our economy that’s being assisted by undocumented people. Let’s approach that issue in a strategic way, not just a hatchet job.

Develop a policy that allows hard working human beings who are doing useful labor to be part of our economy and, if they want, become American citizens. It doesn’t have to be ‘throw them out or let them all in.’ We need a clear path to citizenship for those who want to stay here, pay taxes and become part of the economy. For others, the best answer, says Michael, may simply be a more workable visa. Some folks may like working here, but they don’t want to live here year-round. They should have that freedom.

It doesn’t seem insurmountable to come up with a plan to do this.

“If there’s a path to citizenship, and if people felt they weren’t going to be persecuted, they would come forward, but right now they are afraid they will be kicked out of the country,” says Michael. “That’s not a feasible situation.”

If this reliable, lower cost work force disappears, you’re going to have a lot of issues – like $500 a night hotel rooms, spikes in housing costs, or a disruption in the food supply.

Let’s get this issue solved now.

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress.

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