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Donald Trump’s mass deportation crackdown is here, rounding up immigrants indiscriminately, arresting those who are clearly not “bad hombres”, and detaining those who have no business being detained. Among other things, his crackdown is bad for agriculture. And, because so much of the agriculture industry relies on the work of undocumented immigrants, everyone who eats should be concerned – in other words, all of us.
A number of articles have been published highlighting one specific group of immigrants: farmworkers. From California to New York, from Michigan to Florida, farmworkers are more fearful than ever that they’ll be picked up and deported — or that their work permits will not be renewed. This is bad news for the farmers, ranchers, and factory owners who depend on immigrant labor, and the businesses that depend on immigrant customers. It’s bad news for families, for the US agriculture industry, and for the food safety that saves the US from relying on foreign imports. That’s why farmworkers across the country and the people who hire them are all saying the same thing: that Trump’s anti-immigrant crusade could do a lot of damage to the agriculture industry and agricultural communities.
In California, many farmers voted for Trump, but they are hoping that Trump’s hardline rhetoric against immigrants does not come to pass. “These people had been working for us for a long time, and we depended on them,” said Harold McClarty, a fourth-generation farmer who ships peaches, plums and grapes throughout the country.
The New York Times article that quotes him mentions that about 70% of all farmworkers living and working in the US are undocumented, and that agriculture is by far California’s largest industry, bringing in $35 billion a year and producing more of the nation’s food than any other state.
“If you only have legal labor, certain parts of this industry and this region will not exist,” added McClarty. “If we sent all these people back, it would be a total disaster.”
This sentiment was shared by Fred Leitz, a Michigan fruit and vegetable farmer: “If you took all the undocumented workers out of Michigan, crop agriculture would collapse.”
Anti-immigrant hardliners seem convinced that immigrant laborers, including farmworkers, need to be removed so that Americans can “take back” their jobs. But farmers say that that’s not an option — not when agriculture output across the country is worth almost $1 trillion and workers need to be counted on to show up for hard labor every day. In New York, dairy farm managing partner Craig Yunker said that, “We’ve tried the local labor office where you go and say we have work, and they’ll send somebody out and they’ll try it for an hour, two hours maybe, or they’ll come out and look at the field and look at the job and say, ‘I’m not doing this’ and walk.”
And in Michigan, a fruit and vegetable farmer who said that he would not survive without immigrant labor described a conference he attended where someone suggested busing in college kids to do the work.
Someone else replied, “‘They would be back on the bus by noon.'”
The farmer — who asked that his name be used, added: “I just think Americans aren’t going to do it. College kids aren’t going to do it. It’s just the way it is. It’s hard work. I wouldn’t do it myself.”
Immigrant laborers are also consumers, like everyone else, and many businesses and communities have come to rely on them. This multiplier effect must be included in considerations of what immigrants contribute to the economy. The New York Times describes one California ecosystem where immigrants are needed to make things run:
Patricia Pantoj runs a travel agency in Madera, north of Fresno, where the city’s approximately 60,000 residents are predominantly Latino and work in the fields. This year, she said, fewer people than ever before traveled back to their hometowns in Mexico.
“They didn’t want to risk it,” she said. “Everyone is scared, even if they have papers.”
A few doors away from the travel agency, Maria Valero said all the customers at her gift shop were undocumented.
“If they went away, I would be out of business tomorrow,” she said.
Jhovani Segura, an insurance agent in Firebaugh, near the southern end of the valley, said that as much as 80 percent of their new car insurance policies came from undocumented immigrants who, under a new state law, became eligible for driver’s licenses in 2015.
“If there were mass deportations, we would have to cancel half of our policies,” he said.
In Ceres, north of Merced, the public school district is the largest employer by a large number, and many of the jobs were created to support the children of immigrants. Administrators say any crackdown would result in huge job losses and would reduce funding, which is distributed by the state based on need, for all the children in the district.
In multiple articles from different states around the country, immigrants who have been in the US for decades — who have worked, paid taxes, raised US-born children, and done nothing wrong — expressed confusion about why Trump is targeting people like them.
“We came to work, not to rob anybody,” said Emilio, a zucchini picker in Florida with a US-born son. “We feel more hunted down than usual.”
Maria Orozco of New York, who once spent a winter night sleeping in a vegetable field because her parents heard that ICE was raiding the farms, said that Trump “should just meet these families. He should meet my dad. He should meet the millions of people. All they want to do is come here and work. All they want to do is provide for their families.”
In short, farmers and farmworkers across the country agree that immigrant laborers are a crucial piece of the agriculture industry, and that immigration reform is what’s necessary to secure the lives and livelihood of those involved. Trump’s immigration crackdown, on the other hand, is throwing the industry into chaos.
“We will lose our food security, we will lose a major piece of our rural economies, and we will lose jobs,” said Craig Regelbrugge, the national cochairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, about the importance of foreign workers.
“I’m assuming if you want milk to drink and ice cream to eat, this issue needs to be addressed because there wouldn’t be any,” said Rich Stein, a farmer in New York.
And from a farmer in Michigan: “Our system is broke, but most people won’t admit to it.”
Read the articles covering Trump’s effect on farms and immigrant labor: