July 25, 2017


ICE raids, rhetoric make America view farmworkers 'as criminals again'

New report shows extent of ICE impact on New York farm communities


By Robert Downen, Times Union


Ithaca, NY --- Recent crackdowns by federal immigration agents have made communities more hostile towards minority farm workers, according to a new report Farm owners, meanwhile, fear they'll soon be unable to fill labor-intensive farming jobs that  Americans no longer want.

The report, from two Cornell University agriculture and labor experts, draws on surveys with New York dairy farmers beginning in late February, and largely mirrors concerns voiced by farm owners, economists, and agriculture and workers’ rights groups about the detrimental effects the Trump administration's immigration policies would have on rural communities.

Farmers "do not really know what to expect from the Trump administration, as well as from Congress regarding enforcement," the report reads. "This level of unpredictability is causing a sense of fear and nervousness for farm employers, workers and the community at large."

Many farmworkers have meanwhile stopped leaving farms altogether, the report found.

"It has taken more than a decade for these employers to integrate the Hispanic workers into their communities to a point where these workers were seen as bringing value," the report found. "And now that has been reversed."

"People in their communities now view the workers as criminals again," it said. 

In both New York and nationally, Hispanic — and often undocumented — workers have increasingly taken farm jobs left vacant by American workers. Though exact estimates of their share of the farm workforce are fleeting, most experts believe undocumented workers account for at least half of all farm jobs, plugging holes in a labor force that's often been beleaguered by worker shortages, at tremendous cost to the industry. 

Nationwide, the number of full-time crop workers on American farms dropped by more than 20 percent since 2002, costing at least $3 billion in crops that could have been grown, and another 41,000 in added non-farm jobs, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy.

"Latino workers have become a part of our agricultural economy," Thomas Maloney, who co-authored the Cornell report, said in February. "With each generation we get further from a farm economy, so there's less people in our population that have had any kind of farm experience."

Many farmers have in recent years turned to guest worker programs to supplement the lack of workers, and the U.S. Department of Labor in May reported a 36 percent increase in applications for such H-2A workers. But that visa program is often very costly and time consuming, requiring farmers to advertise the jobs locally, provide housing for workers and pay the regional prevailing wage. 

Indeed, most farmers would gladly fill the jobs with American workers. But "there are very few white people who can physically handle work this hard anymore," Sue Miller, who owns Goold's Orchard in Castleton, said in February. 

Generally, farmers have been very outspoken of anti-immigration rhetoric, fearing that it, in addition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement sweeps, could have chilling effects on workers both legal and not. The Trump administration has previously said the ICE sweeps are no different from previous raids that primarily targeted violent criminals — a claim that has been proven false on an almost countless number of occasions. 

The sweeping changes "just create panic and such a deep level of fear," Jim Sutton, of El Hannon Nursery, said in February. "Whether you're on a visa or not, these people know they're not wanted here."

In a joint statement last month, the New York Farm Bureau and the state Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force denounced what they called "anti-immigrant" sentiment.

"New Yorkers are a better group of people than what the magnified intolerance of our current politics has projected," the statement reads. "This state has long supported immigrant communities. It is the basis of our heritage as a melting pot of diverse people working together to build a better state and country."

"Our political leadership and business leaders should forcefully and unequivocally call for immigration reform and denounce the rhetoric that belittles and dehumanizes farmworkers and simultaneously vilifies the farmers who hire them."