Immigration was the rallying cry of Donald Trump's campaign that helped elevate him to the highest office. The common refrain was that immigrants are interlopers that are "taking our jobs" and that they "compete directly against vulnerable American workers." But lost within his rabble-rousing speeches was the fact that immigrants are a fundamental part of the U.S. economy and for industries like agriculture they are a lifeline.
Rural America went big for Trump. In areas where farming is a major industry, the President- elect won 62 percent of the votes while Hillary Clinton received only 34 percent. But voters in those areas could stand to lose a lot if Trump imposes sweeping immigration reform. "Any draconian move to round up and deport people will have a devastating effect on agriculture," said Bob Martin, director of food system policy, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
That's because 71 percent of crop workers are foreign born and nearly half of farmhands are not legally authorized to work in the United States, according to the USDA. Farm operators have come to rely on immigrants as natives have shied away from grueling agriculture work, even as pay for these jobs has increased.
"It goes beyond matters of income and wages, said Will Rodger, director of policy communications, American Farm Bureau. "It is typical for farmers and growers to pay $1-3 over minimum wage." A farm labor report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service found that the current average wage for farm jobs is $12.75 per hour. And in some states like California and Arizona, pay is as high as $16-17.
Even in times of economic hardship, Americans do not take farm jobs. In 2011 when unemployment was over 10 percent in North Carolina and almost 500,000 people were without jobs, the North Carolina Growers Association still could not recruit native workers. Of the 6500 available jobs at the time, only 268 Americans applied and just seven of the 245 people who had been offered jobs completed the growing season, according to a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan pro-immigration reform group, and the Center for Global Development.
A stable workforce is vital to the success of farms, and Americans have failed to fill that gap as have the federal guest worker program called H-2A. The process for bringing temporary foreign workers into the U.S. legally is complex, and due to administrative delays the help often doesn't come soon enough. The National Council of Agricultural Employers found that 72 percent of growers reported that workers arrived after the date of need and were on average 22 days late.
"We have documented cases where farmers have lost entire crops, because they simply could not find the people to do the work," said Rodger. The Partnership for a New American Economy estimates that labor shortages in agriculture cost the American economy about $3.1 billion a year.
Furthermore, the seasonal nature of the H-2A visa program does not address the dairy industry's need for year-round help.
The numerous shortcomings of the guest worker program have brought together farmers and immigration reform advocates who want to create a system that meets the ever-changing needs of farm owners and is fair to immigrant workers. Most want a more flexible system that keeps the number of visas uncapped but allows foreign employees the freedom to move from employer to employer. Some of the plans also include provisions that create a pathway to citizenship.
With only weeks to go until he assumes the highest office, Trump's plans for immigration remain unclear. But if he imposes heavy-handed policies that deport undocumented immigrants or makes it more difficult to hire foreign workers, it stands to have a substantial impact on the $985 billion agriculture industry.
Faced with labor shortages, the U.S. food system would experience supply constraints that could result in higher prices and force the country to look beyond its own borders for more of its food supply. "We can import labor, or we can import our food," said Rodger.
And if America's ability to produce food was compromised, it could be devastating for the many industries that depend on agricultural production in this country. Economists estimate that every farm job creates three to four positions in the upstream and downstream economy. Americans working in farm service, input, processing and marketing could find their livelihoods at risk if Trump's immigration policies come to fruition.
Food industry experts echoed similar concerns. "It would have a huge effect on how we are producing food and how much food we are producing," said Tom Colicchio, Top Chef judge and co-founder of the advocacy group Food Policy Action. "It would lead to inflation, price increases and in some cases shortages of food."
Many rural Americans are suffering, and Trump seemed to offer an antidote for the pain. But immigration is more complex than what was presented on the campaign trail, and any dramatic changes seem unlikely to help those who voted for his brand of change and only stand to put more jobs at risk.