Immigration Policy: Rural and Agricultural Concerns

Wall Street Journal writer Justin Lahart reported last week that, “The first impact of President Donald Trump’s changes to U.S. immigration policy will fall on businesses that grow, process or sell food. Recent history shows that labor shortages could drive up prices and labor costs, and hurt profits.

Little attention is being paid to the threat to food prices from a drop in immigrant labor.

“What is known so far is generally anecdotal and regional. But the impact of a nationwide hit to the supply of workers could be large. Food price increases, which have been low, would boost already accelerating inflation.”

Recall that last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) pointed out that, “Food-at-home prices declined overall in 2016, falling 1.3 percent below 2015 levels. This marks the first annual decline in supermarket prices since 1967…Looking ahead to 2017, supermarket prices are expected to rise between 0.0 and 1.0 percent.” (Graph from USDA-ERS).

More specifically on Trump administration immigration policies, the Journal article explained that, “Mr. Trump last month introduced sweeping changes to U.S. immigration policy, broadening the number of undocumented immigrants subject to immediate deportation, calling for hiring more Border Patrol and immigration enforcement officers, and ordering that construction begin on a border wall.

People spooked by the rules are staying home, whether they live in the U.S. or abroad. The number of people apprehended illegally crossing the border from Mexico fell sharply last month from January, and there are reports of undocumented immigrants reluctant to go to work for fear of getting caught.”

Mr. Lahart noted that, “As of 2014, there were 8 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. labor force, according to Pew Research Center estimates. Construction firms, restaurants and hotels hire many of those workers.

But farms and other food-producers are where they matter most. Some 17% of agricultural workers are unauthorized immigrants, according to Pew.

Last week’s article stated that, “Farmers in several states are concerned about labor shortages, and farmworkers have expressed anxiety about the crackdown.”

Meanwhile, Natalie Kitroeff and Geoffrey Mohan reported on the front page of Sunday’s Los Angeles Times that, “[Arnulfo Solorio, who has been recruiting farmworkers for the Napa Valley] is one of a growing number of agricultural businessmen who say they face an urgent shortage of workers. The flow of labor began drying up when President Obama tightened the border. Now President Trump is promising to deport more people, raid more companies and build a wall on the southern border.”

Sunday’s article noted that, “Farmers are being forced to make difficult choices about whether to abandon some of the state’s hallmark fruits and vegetables, move operations abroad, import workers under a special visa or replace them altogether with machines.”

An article in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times noted that, “Wages for crop production in California increased by 13% from 2010 to 2015, twice as fast as average pay in the state.”

Kitroeff and Mohan pointed out that, “But the raises and new perks have not tempted native-born Americans to leave their day jobs for the fields. Nine in 10 agriculture workers in California are still foreign born, and more than half are undocumented, according to a federal survey.”

Graph from the Los Angeles Times. Sunday, March 19, 2017.

The Los Angeles Times article added that, “‘You don’t need a deep analysis to understand why farm work wouldn’t be attractive to young Americans,’ says [Philip Martin, an economist at UC Davis and one of the country’s leading experts on agriculture].

If farmers upped the average wage to, say, $25 an hour, people born here might think twice. But that’s a pipe dream, many argue.

“‘Well before we got to $25, there would be machines out in the fields, doing pruning or harvesting, or we would lose crops,’ Martin says.”

Also on Sunday, Barbara Soderlin reported on the front page of the Money section in the Omaha World-Herald that, “[Daniels Produce farm manger Kelly Jackson] worries a crackdown on illegal immigration could create a flood of employers applying to use the [seasonal H2-A visa program for agricultural workers] and make it less likely her application will be processed on time. (Employers using the H2-A visas file the initial applications on behalf of their seasonal workers.) She’s also concerned by Trump’s recent comments about prioritizing visas for highly skilled workers, wondering if that might mean fewer farm laborers allowed into the country.”

Ms. Soderlin pointed out that, “More likely than raising wages might be replacing workers with technology. Costco’s plant managers say they are cutting down on labor needs by investing in robotic de-boning equipment. Plainview, Nebraska, dairy Demerath Farms this month started using robotic milking systems, saying the shift let it expand its herd without hiring more people.

A third possibility is that producers will cut back on production, which might mean fewer jobs, said Eric Thompson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln economist.”

And earlier this month, Rick Barrett reported on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that, “Donald Trump won big in Wisconsin farm country, but now large dairy farms that rely on immigrant labor are threatened by the president’s hardline stance on undocumented workers.”

The article stated that, “By some estimates, up to about 80% of the hired help on large Wisconsin dairy operations is immigrant labor — with a large percentage of those workers being undocumented.”

Mr. Barrett noted that, “Dairy farmers say they get almost ‘zero response‘ from native-born job applicants, even when the pay is comparable with nearby factories.

They say it’s difficult to find reliable help, even in areas where people were born and raised on farms.”

And administration policy considerations are not just impacting the agricultural portion of rural America.

Miriam Jordan reported in Sunday’s New York Times that, “Small-town America relies on a steady flow of doctors from around the world to deliver babies, treat heart ailments and address its residents’ medical needs. But a recent, little-publicized decision by the government to alter the timetable for some visa applications is likely to delay the arrival of new foreign doctors, and is causing concern in the places that depend on them.”

The article noted that, “While the Trump administration is fighting, in the courts of justice and public opinion, for its temporary travel ban affecting six countries, the slowdown in the rural doctor pipeline shows how even a small, relatively uncontroversial change can ripple throughout the country.”

Ms. Jordan explained that, “The procedural change regards temporary visas for skilled workers, known as H-1B visas. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services recently announced that it would temporarily suspend a ‘premium processing’ option by which employers could pay an extra $1,225 to have H-1B applications approved in as little as two weeks, rather than several months.”

“About 25 percent of all physicians practicing or training in the United States are foreign, but in some inner cities and most rural areas, that share is significantly higher,” the article said.

Keith Good

Keith Good is the social media manager for the farmdoc project at the University of Illinois. He is well known in agricultural circles for the daily FarmPolicy.com News Summary.