Immigration, Trade, and the Farm Bill: Fires from the Same Spark

The current Trump administration policy of separating families at the border is cruel, inhumane, and, by no means, required by law. The administration continues to use migrants, asylum seekers, and the nearly 800,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program as pawns to pass immigration reform that would decrease legal migration, and enact harsh judgement on undocumented immigrants. Yet, immigration reform, itself, has become a bargaining chip in passing the Farm Bill in the House. The House version of the 2018 Farm Bill fails farmers in many ways, and people in general, doing away with vital conservation and rural development programs, while effectively kicking around a million people off food assistance. But, this was not enough for the House Freedom Caucus, who delivered the bill’s defeat in May, in response to not getting a vote on immigration. House Democrats, who have been uniformly opposed to the House Farm Bill and the administration’s immigration actions, have been relegated to the sidelines in the negotiations. All the while, Trump’s imposition of tariffs, and corresponding retaliation, have depressed farm commodity prices.

Though each of these fires is taking its own significant effort to contain, they are all connected through the same dubious claims that the US is being taken advantage of by foreigners and must force open foreign markets. While Trump’s tariffs might feel good for a narrow sector of the workforce, they do not do a single thing to address the structural forces of the economy that have offshored jobs in the US, forced farms and other businesses to get big or get out, and created conditions in our trading partner countries that forced people to become economic migrants, including those who are now the backbone of the US agricultural labor force. It doesn’t have to be this way. Numerous studies confirm that immigrants don’t “steal the jobs of native born workers.” The Farm Bill could be fostering the transition to high value domestic markets where current demand outstrips supply. An extremely popular idea of supporting local food economies could lead to free and fair trade the way it is supposed to work, rather than the current system of oversupply to accelerate a race to the bottom. As it stands now, if the Trump administration has its way, the emerging crisis in farm country will only get worse.

This week the House is expected to vote on two immigration bills, one crafted by moderate Republicans, the other by immigration hardliners. The latter bill, authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), includes a provision that would expand the agricultural guestworker, or H-2A, program, which allows in temporary agricultural workers who must be paid a version of a prevailing wage and receive other benefits like housing and transportation. In exchange for raising the cap, the Goodlatte Bill would remove those worker protections. It would also establish an H-2C visa which would expand the types of work that would be covered to sectors such as dairy, and food processing – a thinly veiled attempt to break unions in the food processing industry. Already, the H-2A program suffers from serious abuse of workers’ rights. Stories of wage theft, unsanitary living conditions, and unsafe working conditions are common. Since workers are tied to a single employer under the program, there’s little incentive to speak up about it.

At the same time, Goodlatte’s Bill does little to protect the nearly 2 million undocumented agricultural workers who are already here, though some may be allowed back in the country under the new H-2C visa. However, the requirements for workers to go back to their country of origin to then re-enter under the H-2C program has spurred industry and workers’ groups to oppose that piece of the legislation.

It’s no secret that US agriculture is suffering from a labor shortage. The American Farm Bureau estimates that $60 billion in agricultural production could be lost just this year if enough workers are not found. This is not new. Farm labor has always been low-wage work, and has depended on migrant workers for its sustenance. When other jobs are in demand, the workforce dries up. Farm labor has also been tied up in the politics of racism since colonial times. From slavery, to the exclusion of the predominantly black agricultural (and domestic) workforce from the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which allowed private sector workers to unionize, to the Braceros program of the early and mid-20th Century. When that program was being debated, a Chamber of Commerce spokesman testified to Congress, “We, gentlemen, are just as anxious as you are not to build the civilization of California or any other western district upon a Mexican foundation. We take him because there is nothing else available.” Agribusiness and large-scale agriculture has used whatever means necessary to create a brown-skinned underclass that supplies cheap labor. Grounded in that history, the Goodlatte Bill continues to further erode protections for an already weakly-protected workers. It is no surprise, given their record of racism, that the Trump administration is seeking to continue in this vein.

The bill, for example, could just as easily raise the cap on the number of workers allowed in without stripping the benefits. Doing so would resolve the shortage without compromising worker and human rights. There could also be provisions to provide documents to the undocumented workers, many of whom have been here for decades, that doesn’t involve the onerous touchback requirements. Such a policy would actually decrease administrative red tape, while benefitting farmers by not having to wait for their workforce to return. Senator Feinstein’s AgJOBS Act would have been a good starting point for such actions.

And while we’re at it, we could do away with trade and agriculture policy, which leaders of both parties have frustratingly championed, that encourages overproduction. The systemic dumping of US commodities on international markets displaces farmers around the world. NAFTA drove over 2 million farmers and farm workers from their land. While improving the lives of immigrants in the United States is important, equally important is advocating for policies that protect the Right to Stay Home. At the same time, focusing production on domestic demand that is being unmet will result in higher prices for farmers and better viability for family farms.

However, in this political climate, these reforms are unlikely. We must defend what we can, and part of that is making sure the Goodlatte Bill does not pass. Then we must work to change the climate as soon as possible.