President Donald Trump has enjoyed strong support from many U.S. farmers. His resiliency during painfully long trade negotiations that have been punishing farmers in the form of retaliatory tariffs for the past year is impressive.
Our national border with Mexico will be his next test.
The president has backed off his threat to completely close the border, for now, thus avoiding a costly interruption of business with a major agricultural trading partner. But this week’s shake-up at the Department of Homeland Security indicates that the president is about to get a lot tougher on his signature campaign promise — illegal immigration.
Trump’s plan for a wall paid for by Mexico hasn’t gone as expected, and now his hope for re-election and his presidential legacy are at stake. But he has effectively made his case for a national emergency with his most ardent supporters, including many farmers.
In a Lancaster Farming poll asking what a border closure would achieve, nearly 50 percent of respondents answered, “Help stop illegal immigration and make America safer.”
If Trump aide and nationalist Stephen Miller successfully influences the reshaping of DHS and immigration hardliner Kris Kobach becomes its next secretary, the farmers who support this direction may get what they want, but at another cost to their livelihood.
According to a Pew Research Center report published in November, illegal immigrants made up nearly a quarter of the U.S. agricultural workforce in 2016.
Hired farmworkers, including undocumented immigrants, are essential to U.S. agriculture, especially in labor-intensive fruit and vegetable operations. But the farm labor force has been in decline for a long time. The number of hired farmworkers in the U.S. has dropped by half since 1950, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. That decline, coupled with an aging farmer population, is problematic for an industry in which the size of farms continues to grow.
Add low pay to that equation and few Americans will be lining up to fill these essential jobs.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for agricultural workers in the U.S. as of May 2017 was $23,730, or $11.41 per hour. The living wage for a family of four at that same time was $16.07 per hour, according to a living wage calculator created by Amy Glasmeier at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
So, how will a chokehold on border entry change the American farming landscape? If President Trump’s new message to Central American immigrants stands — “The system is full. We can’t take you anymore.” — U.S. agriculture may need to find another way to fill a quarter of its workforce. But that may be an acceptable sacrifice for his steadfast supporters.
In another Lancaster Farming poll, in conjunction with Presidents Day, readers were asked to choose their favorite farmer-U.S. president. Option D — “President Trump. He’s not a farmer, but he has our backs.” — got 50 percent of the vote, beating out the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln and Jimmy Carter.