Farmworkers Clash With Farm Lobby Amid Immigration Crackdown

(Bloomberg) -- The outcry over the Trump administration’s approach to illegal immigration has served to highlight the widening partisan gulf between most American farmers and the largely foreign workforce they employ.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday addressing the practice of separating migrant families arriving at the U.S. border, which has been the subject of huge media attention. The Department of Health and Human Services originally said there were no plans to reunite the families, but the president has since directed HHS and the agencies for homeland security and justice to do so. Trump said the “zero-tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants continues.

While U.S. farmworker advocates have decried that policy, the leading farmer lobbying group — the American Farm Bureau Federation — is choosing to stay on the sidelines, hoping to solve an ongoing worker shortage through separate agricultural legislation.

U.S. agriculture requires between 1.5 million and 2 million paid workers, at least 50 percent of whom are unauthorized, according to the Farm Bureau’s website. Finding enough hired hands has been a challenge for decades, but has gotten more acute recently, said Paul Schlegel, managing director of public policy and economics at the Farm Bureau. This remains true even as the number of migrant workers on temporary agricultural visas has surged in recent years.

Both Schlegel and farmworker groups attribute this, at least in part, to the Trump administration’s strict enforcement policy. “Because of all the attention immigration got in the Presidential campaign, there has been a greater sensitivity among workers and their ability to move from job to job and that probably has exacerbated what has been an ongoing shortage,” Schlegel said.

“There’s panic, fear in the population because of the crackdown,” said Baldemar Velásquez, the president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. The AFL-CIO represents about 12,000 migrant workers, both authorized and undocumented, under union contracts on nearly 700 farms.

The House of Representatives is set to consider two immigration bills: The Ryan “compromise” bill — not a bi-partisan compromise, but an agreement between conservative and more moderate members of the Republican Party — and the more conservative Goodlatte bill. Both include funding for the border wall and cuts to legal immigration, and while an earlier version the Goodlatte bill had terms on agricultural workers, the most recent one does not.

Schlegel said the Farm Bureau doesn’t have a position on either bill or the Trump administration’s enforcement policies, including on family separation.

The National Farmers Union, the second-largest farm organization after the Farm Bureau, said it doesn’t support the Goodlatte bill, but wouldn’t elaborate and doesn’t have a position on either the Ryan bill or family separations. “We’d prefer not to be more vocal on this issue,” says Andrew Jerome, the union’s communications director.

Farmworker groups and smaller farmer organizations, however, are firmly opposed to the separation policy and the Ryan “compromise” bill. Dozens have signed a letter to Congress protesting both on Wednesday, calling the administration’s original family separation policy an “abhorrent, manufactured crisis.”

“They’re cowards, frankly,” said Velásquez about the major farmers groups’ refusal to comment on the separation policy. “They don’t want to speak against an administration they think is going to play with them. They don’t want to call them out on something very inhumane and very immoral.”

When asked to respond, Schlegel said Velásquez’s statement is “despicable” and has no basis in fact. “I don’t have to respond to an allegation like that. It’s absolutely bogus.” The National Farmers Union declined to comment on Velásquez’s characterization.

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