Immigration Rhetoric Makes Agriculture Industry Hungry for Fact-Based Debates

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By Catherine Boudreau

Sept. 24 — The anti-immigration rhetoric currently dominating the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has the agriculture industry yearning for a more fact-based debate, industry groups said.

For years, U.S. farmers and ranchers have advocated overhauling the broken legal immigration system that has left them with a mostly undocumented workforce and chronic labor shortages. Those legislative efforts face a recent hurdle in Donald Trump, whose hard-line stance on immigration attracts enthusiastic supporters and forces other candidates to engage on a controversial issue.

The real-estate tycoon has referred to immigrants as “criminals” and has outlined a plan that includes building a wall along the southern border and ending birthright citizenship. During the Sept. 16 debate on CNN, Trump reiterated that it would take two years to deport the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants with proper management.

“At this stage in the Republican primary, where louder voices have more sway, it results in a chilling effect on a solutions-oriented dialogue,” Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of industry advocacy and research at AmericanHort, which represents the horticulture business, told Bloomberg BNA. “You have a relatively small but very vocal minority that has decided that this is the greatest threat our nation faces, and they are angry and deeply passionate about it.”

Agricultural stakeholders and Republican strategists say Trump's views aren't based on reality and other candidates risk the GOP nomination if they shift farther to the right. Polls show that a majority of Americans, regardless of their political party, support a path to legal status for immigrants if certain requirements are met.

Further, the produce industry in California, dairy operations in the Midwest and others sectors of the food industry rely on migrant labor. Between 50 percent and 70 percent of the 2.5 million U.S. farm workers are undocumented, according to estimates by the Department of Labor and the University of California, Davis, respectively.

Employers have had few options outside of hiring undocumented workers because of an onerous and costly temporary guest-worker program, also known as H-2A. The program supplies a small percentage of the agricultural workforce even though there aren't any caps on the numbers of visas that can be issued. And most Americans don't want jobs in agriculture, despite rising wages, for reasons including the physical nature of the work and its seasonality in some parts of the country.

“We've been supporting comprehensive immigration reform for years to get some sort of legal status for those who've been living and working in the U.S. and been critical to the industry for decades,” Bryan Little, director of employment of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said, adding that Republicans may hold off on voicing their position on legal status during the primary in hopes of winning the nomination.

Some in the conservative-leaning agriculture industry may not support candidates lacking a clear stance on repairing the immigration system.

Early Stance on Immigration

Republican candidates didn't expect to address immigration so early in the campaign, strategists said.

Trump's anti-immigration platform has forced candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson to declare their stance on the issue, and some are pulling back on their overhaul positions, said Jason Roe, managing partner at consulting firm Revolvis and former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential run.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who dropped out of the race Sept. 23, embraced Trump's tough stance on immigration after being relatively progressive on the issue in the past, Roe said. Walker had backed a pathway to citizenship during the 2013 Senate debate on comprehensive legislation.

Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said the shift contributed to Walker's withdrawal from the race. “Campaign funders are thinking, ‘Who can win this in the long term?' The error many candidates make is thinking about short-term gains. ‘How can I win a narrow conservative base?' ”

Bolstering the narrative that Republicans don't care about immigrants is a problem for the party because of the rising number of Latino voters, Aguilar said, and it isn't the way to win the GOP nomination.

Between 2010 and 2014, the number of eligible Latino voters increased by 3.9 million, according to the Pew Research Center, and a record 25.2 million Latinos were eligible to vote in the 2014 midterm elections.

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Border Security, Enforcement

Most Republican candidates understand the structural problems facing agriculture, AmericanHort's Regelbrugge said. He anticipates that the debate on immigration will evolve into something more substantive.

The Department of Homeland Security claims drastic improvements in border security. Illegal immigration attempts, as measured by Border Patrol apprehensions, decreased 53 percent from 2009-2011 and were one-third of what they were at their peak, the department says. Along the Southwest border, the number of Border Patrol agents more than doubled to more than 18,500 from about 9,100 in 2001.

Yet at this stage in the presidential race, discussions mostly center on border security and deporting people, Aguilar said. Bush is one of the few candidates going beyond those issues, while others, except for Trump, have only vaguely talked about addressing the current undocumented population.

Bush announced a plan in August that included a path to legal status upon passing a background check, paying fines, learning English and other requirements.

“But any plan to address the status of illegal immigrants must be accompanied by a robust strategy to improve border security,” Bush wrote.

Fiorina advocates for securing the border first, and suggested she would support legislation similar to the DREAM Act that would allow undocumented youths to earn legal status by attending college or serving in the military.

Carson, another proponent of securing the border, said during the CNN debate that immigrants with a clean record should pay a fine and be considered for guest worker status, primarily in the agricultural sector, during a three-month grace period. Carson recently expressed support for ending birthright citizenship.

Rubio, during a Sept. 22 interview on FOX News, outlined a step-by-step process on immigration. First he would secure the border and stop illegal immigration, then modernize the legal immigration system and debate how to legalize undocumented people.

“And then ultimately in 10 or 12 years you could have a broader debate about how has this worked out and should we allow some of them to apply for green cards and eventually citizenship,” Rubio said.

Addressing Undocumented Population

The problems the agriculture industry faces should be dealt with much sooner than that, Little of CFBF said.

Focusing on strengthening border security and expanding enforcement tools like the Internet-based E-Verify system that determines an employee's work eligibility, before addressing undocumented immigrants, would be detrimental to agriculture, according to many industry groups.

And agribusiness donated about $11.7 million to presidential candidates during the 2012 election cycle, 81.5 percent of which went to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Impact of Losing Migrant Labor

Eliminating immigrant labor would have a massive impact on the U.S. economy, Jaime Castaneda, senior vice president for strategic initiatives and trade policy at the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), told Bloomberg BNA.

“Not only on the prices we have to pay for food, but on the reliability of where the food comes from,” Castaneda said. “Some of the [Republicans] talking about immigration are the same ones that don’t want to see a lot of food coming from overseas. Guess what? These two issues are very interconnected.”

For example, U.S. produce growers haven't reaped the economic benefits of American's increasing demand for fruits and vegetables largely because the labor to harvest those crops isn't available, a 2014 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform found.

Between 1998 and 2012, the amount of fresh produce consumed in the U.S. grew by 10.5 percent, but farmers' production only rose by 1.4 percent. During the same period, Americans increased their fresh vegetable consumption by more than 9 percent, while U.S. production declined 3.5 percent.

In 1998, about 14.5 percent of the fresh fruit Americans bought was imported, according to the report. By 2012 that rose to 25.8 percent, a result of both labor shortages and globalization.

Republicans Depend on Agriculture Votes

Roe of Revolvis said immigration complicates the relationship between the agricultural electorate and Republican candidates, but there are a lot of issues that make agribusiness a reliable base for Republicans. That includes taxes and a focus on ensuring federal regulations aren't cumbersome.

Little of CFBF echoed that statement, and said the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' joint waters of the U.S. regulation is causing a lot of anxiety. Farmers are worried that requirements under the Clean Water Act could make it illegal to use land without first navigating a costly and complex permitting system, and Republicans in Congress are trying to overturn the regulation.

The availability of water and labor are two of the most important issues farmers in California are dealing with, Little said. “How each ranks depends on your business, the state you're from and other factors.”

Regelbrugge said a lot of people are frustrated because they don't see a resolution of immigration issues in the near term, and may withhold their support for candidates who don't take a clear stance on repairing the system.

“I think folks also may be moved to vote more because of who they don’t want to win,” Regelbrugge said.

Legislative Efforts

Amid the debate on immigration, both strategists and stakeholders in the agriculture industry agree legislating change would be in the best interest of the Republican Party. That is very unlikely, however.

The House in 2013 never brought up a Senate-passed comprehensive bill. Since then, the House has taken a piecemeal approach, beginning with securing the border and interior enforcement that hasn't gone anywhere, in part due to lobbying by the agriculture industry. The House passed two bills (H.R. 3900, H.R. 1624) this session that would end federal funding of states or localities that don’t enforce immigration laws, also known as sanctuary cities, and require border security technology to be reviewed, respectively.

“I don't see a political path to getting anything substantial done,” Little said. “Nothing happens in the year leading up to a presidential election. The time is during the second year or second term of a presidency.”

In the meantime, California growers are switching to less labor- and water-intensive crops like tree nuts harvested by machines, Little said. Employers also are increasingly using the H-2A program even with all its problems because the labor situation is desperate.

Regelbrugge said farmers will likely have to ride it out. The labor shortage is worsening, fewer people are entering the U.S. and employers are trying to stretch their current workforce.

To contact the reporter on this story: Catherine Boudreau in Washington at cboudreau@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com