WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Agricultural leaders say farmers aren't panicked yet by the Trump administration's new memos on immigration enforcement, but concerns are growing that illegal immigrants, who are the backbone of most farm labor in the country, could increasingly become targets of deportation.
Memos handed down by the Department of Homeland Security earlier this week make it easier to deport almost any person in the U.S. illegally. For roughly 11 million people in the U.S. illegally, deportation has always been a threat, but for the most part, those people were unlikely to be deported unless they committed a serious crime. New guidelines make it more likely they can be deported if they are pulled over by law enforcement.
The tighter enforcement could have a major impact on farmers who rely heavily on undocumented labor, said Frank Gasperini, executive director of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. Gasperini told DTN there are increasing concerns from farmers right now over how the Department of Homeland Security will enforce its new guidelines. "There's isn't an awful lot of impact yet, but people are becoming more worried," Gasperini said.
Gasperini also pointed to a section in one of the two Homeland Security memos that noted the federal government would assess all penalties and fines against the workers "and those who facilitate them being here." That statement can be interpreted to mean employers "because they wouldn't be here if it weren't for the jobs." Gasperini estimated more than half of the country's 1.5 million seasonal workers are undocumented.
"They are scared and they are reacting like scared people, which is reasonable," Gasperini said.
The migrant stream normally starts in Florida and Texas then moves to Georgia, the Carolinas and northward as the seasons change. Five years ago when states started getting tougher on undocumented workers, Alabama lost much of its tomato crop and Georgia lost part of its Vidalia onion crop. Georgia attempted to replace migrant farm labor with prison labor, but that failed. Farmers across the country are affected when the flow of migrant workers is disrupted, Gasperini said. "It hurt states like Michigan badly, and it hurt parts of Pennsylvania and other states as well," he said.
Speaking to reporters at the USDA Outlook Forum on Thursday, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said agriculture has to find a way to get a rational guest-worker program. He said the issue comes up more frequently when he is talking to farmers.
"The turmoil committed by whatever Mr. [President Donald] Trump is trying to do is unhelpful in that sense, but we're a nation of laws and what Mr. Trump is doing is enforcing our laws," Conaway said. "But I do think it is in all of our interests to have a good inside-voice conversation about immigration as it relates to a work program that has nothing to do with citizenship."
Conaway noted he represents one of the most conservative districts in the country, but he did a recent poll with his constituents who said they strongly support an improved guest-worker program for agriculture, as long as such a program does not include potential citizenship. Conaway cited that H-2A doesn't work for farmers such as dairy producers who need daily labor.
"We can't do a worker program for agriculture fast enough," he said.
Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, has been a leader in immigration reform for the past several years. "Our farmers need dependable labor and they want legal labor," Wooten said.
North Carolina has a diverse crop mix of fruits, vegetables, nurseries, tobacco and other row crops, many of which require more labor than other commodity crops. The state uses about 80,000 farm workers, of which about 20,000 come from the H-2A guest-worker program. Planting season is coming up quickly. "We have a high percentage of undocumented workers, many of whom have been here for years," Wooten said. "They are dependable and they run the machinery and they are managers, and they are some of the most important people on those farm operations."
"Nobody I would say is alarmed yet, but a hold up in the H-2A would cause some alarm as we get into planting season," Wooten said.
Wooten is hopeful Congress will move forward on a more comprehensive immigration bill to deal with guest workers for agriculture. Aggressive enforcement won't work in agriculture without some improvements in H-2A, and legalization of workers who have been in the U.S. for several years, he said.
"This is an opportunity to put pressure on to fix the broken immigration system," Wooten said. "We need some adjustment of status for those workers, many of which have been here 10 to 15 years. Right now, our farmers and growers are very nervous."
An immigration bill doesn't seem like an agenda priority for Congress, but Wooten is pressing the North Carolina congressional delegation. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., has been vocal that he would like to fix the situation, Wooten said. "He understands the angst it is causing our growers and our workers, and just generally in the countryside because of this," Wooten said.
The tougher state laws and tighter enforcement under the Obama administration against illegal residents pushed more farmers to use the H-2A program in recent years. Ag employers in 2016 used the program to bring in more than 160,000 temporary workers, twice as many workers under the program as five years ago.
"People are very, very concerned because we are afraid our migrant workers won't come, or these enforcement measures will result in much stricter enforcement and people will end up being pulled off of highways and out of the fields during the season," Wooten said.
The U.S. Department of Labor, Department of State and the Customs and Immigration Services all have a role in H-2A applications and approvals. Gasperini noted the departments don't have computers that network, and in some cases, operate with old software limitations. There could be applications for more than 200,000 workers through the H-2A program this year, which is expected to strain the system.
"At some point, it doesn't matter how hard they try to process and approve applications, they are just going to run out of capacity," Gasperini said.
Wooten added he's concerned about the budget for the H-2A program to handle the load. Another complaint is that the Department of Labor just bumped up the Adverse Wage Rate by 55 cents in his state to an average of $11.27 an hour for H-2A workers.
H-2A doesn't help farmers who need labor every day of the year, such as dairies, livestock or poultry operations. Those farmers around the country who rely on likely undocumented workers do not have a guest-worker program.
Another limitation for H-2A workers is the lack of housing capacity for them as the demand grows. The program requires employers to provide adequate housing for each worker.
"Agriculture is just really unprepared for being forced into all H-2A. It just isn't workable," Gasperini said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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