Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Big agriculture is big business in America -- as long as it has access to a big supply of immigrant labor. Agriculture is significantly more dependent on illegal labor than any other segment of the economy. According to the Pew Research Center, undocumented immigrants made up about 5 percent of the total U.S. workforce in 2014, but about 26 percent of farm labor. When Georgia and Alabama cracked down on undocumented immigrants in 2011, crops rotted.
President Donald Trump's vow to rid the land of undocumented immigrants is naturally a threat to agriculture. Or is it? Reuters reported this week on an April 25 meeting between Trump and agriculture interests.
President Donald Trump said he would seek to keep his tough immigration enforcement policies from harming the U.S. farm industry and its largely immigrant workforce, according to farmers and officials who met with him.
At a roundtable on farm labor at the White House last month, Trump said he did not want to create labor problems for farmers and would look into improving a program that brings in temporary agricultural workers on legal visas.
"He assured us we would have plenty of access to workers," said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, one of 14 participants at the April 25 meeting with Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Because Trump is Trump, his assurances to agriculture interests may be true, false or something he said just because. Enforcing immigration laws, however, is an exercise in setting priorities. Like his predecessor, Trump has said that criminals are his priority for deportation.
That may not be panning out in practice. The Washington Post reported last month that arrests of undocumented immigrants without criminal records spiked in the first few months of the Trump administration. The administration may be genuinely targeting criminals through the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, but if it is, it's picking up plenty of others along the way.
"Not being a priority is not the same as being immune from deportation," emailed immigration expert Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy. "Even though raids on farms may not be imminent, it doesn’t mean farm workers won’t be deported when ICE agents find and detain them."
Still, farms have typically received lenient treatment from immigration agents, and farms would certainly like that to continue. "Every administration tells agriculture that it's not the intention to deny workers" to farms, said William Stock, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Everyone acknowledges that American agriculture is highly dependent on immigrant labor."
A Democratic staff member who works on immigration issues in Congress emailed that Trump might be discovering that some powerful Republican business interests have no use for his signature domestic policy. But, of course, Trump is famous for telling his audiences whatever he thinks they want to hear. (“Don’t worry, we’re going to have the wall,” Trump assured a crowd of supporters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania last month.)
If Trump's assurances are worth anything -- and agriculture interests seem to believe they are -- it does suggest that some undocumented immigrants may be more equal than others. It's hard to square that with the aggressive crackdown that Trump has promised to deliver to his base.
Perhaps the Trump administration intends to dispense fear in waves, working first in densely populated areas before dispatching agents to the countryside. Or perhaps Trump is scamming either his base or the farmers. They would each be wise to assume so.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.