The one aspect of politics where the Trump regime has been wildly successful is spreading terror into immigrants, both documented and otherwise. In rural blue state areas like upstate New York, where migrant farmers pick crops, Trump's ICE raids are threatening families, farms, and an entire sector of the agriculture industry.
Since Donald Trump took office in January, ICE has been newly empowered and encouraged to target undocumented immigrants with criminal records for deportation—a practice that winds up capturing a huge number of undocumented immigrants without criminal records, too. But, while the Trump administration may be more zealous about enforcement than previous administrations, they have not actually changed any laws. Existing immigration legislation has long been at odds with the U.S. economy and with farming communities across the country. Trump’s aggressive rhetoric is only having an impact because of the legal framework buttressing it. Which is why, after a string of ICE arrests cut through the local Hudson Valley farm community, word quickly spread among Hispanic farmworkers there that nobody is safe.
As in the rest of the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as much as half of the farm workforce in New York is undocumented. The fear of deportation looming over Hudson Valley farmworkers is also impacting farmers—what they’re willing to plant and what they think they’ll be able to harvest.
“My ancestors are Irish and they were called all sorts of names,” Pete, a 58-year-old farmer, told me. He said the country has swung back around to how it was a century ago. “Now people say Hispanics are taking their jobs,” Pete said. “Come on. You can’t get a kid who can flip a burger to come here and do this job for $15 an hour. If we had a workforce that was willing to do this work, I’d hire them, but we don’t.” A 2014 American Farm Bureau study backs that up: It shows that unemployed Americans regularly shun farm work, even preferring to stay unemployed.
Which is one reason why Pete told me he’s anticipating a rough year: He’s not sure he’ll have the hands to do the work on his berry, apple, and vegetable crops. “Word of mouth used to bring guys to the farm during the harvest, but now I don’t know,” he said. He wouldn’t agree to let me use his name because he said even talking to a reporter had him worried about repercussions from zealous ICE agents. (While we were talking, Pete’s wife yelled at him to hang up the phone. He didn’t.) Pete pointed to an ICE arrest of five farmworkers in western New York who did not have criminal records. He said it’s just that kind of unpredictability that adds another layer of uncertainty to a business already fraught with pressures farmers cannot control—like the weather or consumer appetites.
But besides the human aspect, the economic aspect is also causing harm to the same rural America Trump vowed to "make great again" in his campaign propaganda.
Pete points out that the undocumented community is a net contributor to taxes. It’s true: A recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that undocumented immigrants contribute billions of dollars to state and local taxes across the country. Deporting them, Pete added, will only hurt Americans. “If they just stopped contributing to the workforce, we’d have a major crisis,” he said. “Pretending [deportation] fixes the system that’s broken only means less food; it doesn’t fix how this works.”
The official, legal policy solution for farmers who need extra help has been in place in one form or another since World War II. The H2-A visa program asks farmers to apply to bring in foreign workers for the harvest season. Many farmers use the program, and some of the owners of the smaller farms I talked to use it exclusively. That knock on the door of Luis’s trailer at one in the morning? It was the arrival of an H2-A worker fresh off a flight from Jamaica. But the program was created in the 1950s, and it isn’t well suited to farm labor today—and for most farmers, it has become a bureaucratic nightmare.
The annual slog through red tape puts farms at risk. Every farmer I talked to about H2-A mentioned delays in getting workers—which imperils the harvest. In 2015, for instance, a computer glitch held up hundreds of workers from Mexico, partially ruining Washington state’s cherry crop that year. Yet, none of the Hudson Valley farmers I interviewed for this story who use H2-A would go on the record to criticize it. The farmers are scared they won’t get the workers they need if they do. Farmers told me that it seems like just about any pretext is used to prevent them from getting their labor supply legally. One farmer told me she’d critiqued the program in a blog post a few years back, and she was paranoid that’s why she didn’t get her workers that year. A vegetable producer told me: “One year I didn’t get an H2-A worker because I didn’t use the word drive, as in, ‘Must drivea tractor.’ I used operate on the application.” Apparently, the farmer’s wording was not precise enough. Add the recent deportations to the existing H2-A delays and application concerns, and you’ve got one nervous farming community. (When I asked the Department of Labor about these H2-A problems, a spokesman told me the Trump administration was still too new to have a policy position on the program or about the concerns farmers have voiced about the system.)
This year, the fear of not having enough undocumented labor or enough H2-A workers has farmers planting fewer crops across the Hudson Valley. “Farmers are afraid they won’t be able to harvest what they plant,” said Steve Ammerman of the New York Farm Bureau. Ammerman told me there’s a disconnect in Washington, D.C., between what the Trump administration thinks immigration enforcement means for America and what it really means. “It means food prices are going to go up, hurting national security,” he said. Ammerman pointed to a recent study that estimates the consequences if all undocumented New York agricultural workers are deported: There would be a 24 percent fall in farm production (amounting to $1.37 billion in commodity value lost) and a knock-on effect of nearly 45,000 lost jobs across the state.
Food prices go up, that hurts consumers and restaurants. Those are hurt, people lose jobs or can't afford to buy other products because of food prices, that hurts even more sectors of the economy. There's a reason why George W. Bush wanted immigration reform a decade ago, and his own party exploded in racist outrage when they realized what he was going to do: the same thing Reagan did 30 years ago.
It's complex stuff here, and the Trump regime has decided to let the racist zealots control things. The ICE squads are loose, the people are scared, and the farmers are going to suffer billions in losses. Those steep price hikes are going to start coming to your grocery store very soon.
But this is what America voted for.
Especially out in rural farm communities.