January 3. 2017
Deportation of undocumented immigrants would affect tens of thousands of dairy farm workers and seasonal crop harvesters in Wisconsin. (rightdx/iStockPhoto)
MADISON, Wis. – During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly promised to deport millions of people who are undocumented. A number of farm groups are saying "not so fast." The American Farm Bureau Federation said about half the farm workers in this country are undocumented.
Steve Suppan, senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said the Farm Bureau has to walk a fine line because its constituents are largely Republican, and they wouldn't back plans to make farm workers U.S. citizens.
"A very small needle that has to be threaded between providing agribusiness what it wants and still somehow pretending to keep to the electoral pledge and the general idea of deporting the immigrants who are blamed for the loss of employment," he explained.
The American Farm Bureau has called for immigration reform, saying there needs to be a new, more flexible visa program that meets the needs of farmers and workers but, at the same time, guarantees that the agricultural workforce is not subjected to mass deportation. The University of Wisconsin estimates that 40 percent of the workers now on Wisconsin dairy farms are undocumented immigrants.
Deporting a significant percentage of the estimated 85,000 undocumented Wisconsin ag workers could have a drastic effect. Many of the state's dairy farmers say they could not operate without the immigrants. Suppan said the industry depends on minimum or less than minimum-wage labor, but he expects there will be some deportations under a Trump administration.
"There are going to be, definitely, some fairly spectacular roundups, at least of the type that will show 'victory for America,' the immigrant-deportation variation of the 'Carrier saving 700 jobs,'" he said. "So, I expect to see a fair amount of public-relations outreach concerning migrants."
To the argument that immigrants are taking Americans' jobs, Suppan said legal citizens haven't wanted to work in the industry, especially for the wages that currently are being offered, which, according to the USDA, is on average, $10.80 an hour, and even less for undocumented workers.
"Let's say you take the wage up to an average of $15 an hour, and you include benefits," he added. "That changes the pricing structure of agriculture, and then becomes questionable whether, for example, the confined animal-feed operation business model is viable."