President Donald Trump met with 14 farmers and representatives from the farming sector on April 25. Those in attendance say Trump has indicated he won’t allow his tough immigration enforcement policies to harm the U.S. farm industry, and that he isn’t particularly interested in deporting their largely illegal workforce.
Although the White House was vague about what was discussed at the round-table meeting last month, describing it only as “very productive,” some of the farmers in attendance are talking about what was said. One subject that farmers stressed as a major need was both short-term and permanent workers. And they weren’t only talking about employing Americans.
The farmers in attendance report that they told Trump there is a need for a program that would allow long-time farm workers, here illegally, but who did not have criminal records, to become legal residents.
Meeting participants expressed concern about the increased efforts at border security. Two of President Trump’s first executive orders called for increased security, arrests and faster deportations of illegals. The farmers were worried about how that might impact their workforce.
Participants at the meeting report that President Trump assured them the increased security was meant for deportation of criminals, not farm workers, according to Reuters.
Some participants told president Trump that it’s difficult to find find Americans willing to do the toughest farm jobs. According to the report, Pennsylvania dairy farmer Luke Brubaker said that a poultry operation in his county hired “half a dozen chicken catchers” who were local citizens, but five of them quit within hours.
U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agriculture Workers’ Survey figures indicate that almost half of U.S. crop workers are in the country illegally, while over two-thirds are foreign born.
Also of concern is the H-2A guest worker program, which allows employers to import workers. Under the program, the employer has to provide free transportation to and from the United States and they must house and feed the workers while they’re here. Also under the program, wage minimums are set by the government and can be higher than farmers want to pay.
Californian Steve Scaroni of Fresh Harvest said he brings thousands of foreign H-2A workers to work in California’s Central valley and that “he could find work for even more people if he had more places to house them.”
An Ohio nursery president, Tom Demaline of Willoway Nurseries, reports he told Trump that while he’s used the H-2A guest worker program for 18 years, it doesn’t really work.
“I brought up the bureaucracy and red tape,” Demaline said. “If the guys show up a week or two late, it puts crops in jeopardy. You are on pins and needles all year to make sure you get the workers and do everything right.”
The farmers report frustration that the H-2A visa program is the “one legal way to bring in temporary seasonal agricultural workers.”
Although the use of the visa program is on the rise, only about 10% of the estimated 1.3 million U.S. farm-workers are part of the program. Government data indicates they granted 134,000 H-2A visas in 2016.
Participants report that Trump said he would look into improvements to the program and that “he did not want to create labor problems for farmers”.
“He assured us we would have plenty of access to workers,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
According to Reuters, participants said Trump asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue “to look into the issues and come back with recommendations.”
Although trade, infrastructure and technology were also discussed, one of the participants, Iowa farmer Bill Northey, said he thought those in attendance felt better about the discussions surrounding foreign labor “than about anything else we talked about.”
Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order seeks changes in the temporary visa program for the tech industry, but does not address visas used by farmers and other seasonal businesses.
Democrats in the House and Senate are set to introduce a bill meant to give farm workers, in the U.S. illegally and who have worked for two consecutive years, a “blue card” that will protect them from deportation.
Brubaker hopes the bill will get the president’s support. “The administration has got something started here,” he said, regarding the meeting. “It’s about time something happens.”
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