Hard Labor

President Trump’s immigration crackdown threatens to exacerbate an already acute agricultural labor shortage in California. But so far, the crackdown hasn’t really happened.

Farm workers harvest spinach near Coachella. President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration could worsen the state’s shortage of agricultural labor.
Farm workers harvest spinach near Coachella. President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration could worsen the state’s shortage of agricultural labor.

Many California farmers shuddered when President Donald Trump began making good on his campaign promise to find and deport undocumented immigrants. During the Trump Administration’s first 100 days, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested more than 41,000 individuals known or suspected of being in the country illegally ­— a nearly 40 percent jump over the same period in 2016.

Because 70 percent of the state’s roughly 600,000 agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants, the immigration crackdown threatens to exacerbate an already acute labor shortage.

“Crews are off 20 to 25 percent,” says James Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. At stake for the state’s $54 billion agriculture industry: crops left to rot in the fields, higher prices at supermarkets and, eventually perhaps, fewer California-grown labor-intensive crops like strawberries, lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli.

During the most recent harvest, news reports indicated the impact of a persistent labor shortage continuing throughout the state. At Ikeda Bros. in Arroyo Grande Valley, as much as 20 percent of the bok choy, broccoli, kale and lettuce crops has gone unpicked. Monterey Mushrooms in Watsonville scaled back production by 12 percent. Cecchini & Cecchini in Brentwood, which once farmed 1,200 acres of asparagus, planted just 15 acres last year.

President Trump’s tough talk seems to have made a bad problem worse. Availability of agricultural workers is being limited by a slowdown in illegal immigration due to a tighter border, aggressive deportations under Presidents Bush and Obama, an aging worker population and an improving Mexican economy. The net effect: More Mexican workers actually have been leaving the U.S. than arriving — producing a net loss of 140,000 immigrants between 2009 and 2014 in California, according to Pew Research.

That’s left the state’s farmers wondering when the immigration crackdown will begin to take a direct toll. Through this fall, ICE had not raided any California agricultural businesses since Trump took office. According to ICE, the agency does not target farms or packing houses because it is primarily focused on individuals with criminal records or who are immigration fugitives.

One possible reason for selective enforcement: Many California farmers supported President Trump. In April, he signed an executive order ordering federal agencies to “ensure access to a reliable workforce and increase employment opportunities” for agriculture. Then, in a private meeting the following month, the President reportedly assured 14 leaders from the agricultural industry that they would have plenty of access to workers.

But it’s increasingly clear that neither goodwill nor a hands-off approach are enough to overcome an endemic shortage of labor. “Everywhere I travel in California, I hear from farmers, growers and producers from all industries — wine, citrus, fruit and tree nuts, dairy — that there aren’t enough workers,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement. “Farm labor is performed almost exclusively by undocumented immigrants — a fact that should surprise no one.”

Infographic: California Regional Farm Workers Employment and Wages

California’s farmers, meanwhile, do what they can. They can apply for H-2A guest worker visas — temporary permits that come with an unwieldy administrative burden. To qualify, farmers must agree to provide free housing and pay at least $11.89 per hour (the state minimum wage is $10.50 per hour). Plus, the maximum period of stay on H-2A visas is three years.

“There’s so much red tape that a very small percentage of farmers even go through the legal process,” says Susan Cohen, an immigration attorney who helped draft the Immigration Act of 1990 and several Department of Labor regulations for immigrant workers. “Theoretically, we could have hundreds of thousands of workers become documented, but the experienced workers that [farmers] want to hire have been here too long.”

Farmers also have tried paying higher wages, and some are even offering 401(k) plans, paid vacation and tuition assistance for English language programs. According to a Los Angeles Times study of Department of Labor data, wages for crop workers rose 13 percent from 2010 to 2015. More recently, some wages have hit $20 per hour in some Napa and Sonoma vineyards, in the $15-per-hour range for coastal farms, and a bit a lower in the inland areas.

As a last resort, some farmers of labor-intensive crops may switch to crops that can be mechanically harvested, such as almonds rather than strawberries. But that requires large capital investments and years of planning.

It’s unlikely that farmers will see a meaningful change in immigration policy to reopen the flow of immigrant workers. “I don’t predict it’s going to get better in the short term,” Cohen says. “This autumn has been brutal, and [ICE is] not letting up. There’s no good solution for farmers.”

Blaise Zerega is Alta Journal's editorial director.
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