Taking Back the Farm

Workers harvest corn on a farm in Gilroy, California. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr/cc

In the Central Valley of California—arguably the heartland of big American agriculture today—there’s a bumper sticker shaped like California. It reads, “My job depends on Ag.” In California, “big agriculture” largely depends on immigrant labor. Many farmers in the state, however, supported President Donald Trump despite his tough stance on immigration. Now that the new Trump administration has assumed office, what’s the thinking among those involved in U.S. agriculture?

If the current administration ever gets down to business, the farm industry will face serious repercussions.

Rewind to the 2016 presidential debates. They all had the standard blather (on both sides) of the hard-hit U.S. worker, the poor coal miners, and the need to address urban poverty. But does anyone remember an exchange on the U.S. farmer? Despite the multitudes who labor in the fields to bring food to our table, and despite current data that illustrates an unsustainable path in U.S. agriculture—soil erosion, water, and GMOs are just the tip of the iceberg—farm policy has not come up once over the last 16 years of presidential debates. The American farmer is all but forgotten in U.S. politics.

Ballot Box Contradictions

Given the long-standing omission of American agriculture from presidential politics, it’s no surprise, then, that during the 2016 Presidential Election, rural America’s actions amounted to a clear contradiction at the ballot box. Trump won the vote in approximately 90 percent of rural counties. Hillary Clinton, who rural America did not vote for, supported a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented workers. Many viewed her as the real champion of workers, rural or otherwise. Yet Clinton lost rural America by a margin of 3 to 1, while Trump focused on building “the wall” and deporting undocumented workers. Thus, in voting for Trump, rural America voted to remove the low-wage workers who constitute the backbone of the rural economy.

The 2016 election had numerous ironies, but perhaps none more troubling than the fact that residents of the agricultural heartland voted overwhelmingly for a candidate who pledged to deport millions of undocumented workers. Farming is already a high-risk, low-margin business enterprise. The industry has enough trouble on its own, without the looming threat of deporting masses of rural farm workers. Put another way, the farm crisis has not gone away, though hundreds of thousands of farm families have. The economic devastation in farm country continues unabated, as agribusiness, Wall Street speculators, urban sprawl and political elites put the squeeze on rural America.

The Farm Workers’ Response

Understandably, millions of undocumented farm workers are in a state of panic these days. In California, Latino/Latina immigrants took to the streets to voice their opposition to the President-Elect. The day after the election, a group of protesters in downtown Los Angeles shouted, Aqui estamos y no nos vamos! or, “We are here and we are not leaving!” according to Voices of America, a U.S.-based news service that broadcasts in 45 languages.

Despite immigrants’ rights protests focused on staying put, with Donald Trump as President farm workers are now in a state of red alert. Antonio, a farm worker who has been employed in California’s table grape industry for 16 years, was quoted on the UFW website saying, “Since I learned that Donald Trump won the race, I felt great fear… I am afraid that one day he would want to deport all of us.”

Will Trump’s Immigration Plans Succeed?

Many immigration experts have reported that Trump’s mass deportation plan is poorly conceived; it’s unlikely to be effective at reversing the tide of immigrants from south of the border. But for those who are still holding onto the belief that Trump’s initial statements on deportation were more bluster than substance, think again. At the time of this writing, his administration has unrolled an aggressive plan to start deporting undocumented works en masse.

There are an estimated 2.5 million farm workers laboring on our nation’s farms and ranches, cultivating and harvesting crops, and raising and tending livestock. According to Immigration Status and Nationality, approximately 48 percent of farm workers lack work authorization. However, this estimate may be low, due to a variety of factors. Other sources estimate that as much as 70 percent or more of the workforce is undocumented. By these estimates, roughly 1.2 million to 1.75 million farm workers are undocumented, while roughly 750,000 to 1.3 million farm workers are U.S. citizens or lawful immigrants.

Consistent with the judicial and civil scrutiny applied to his other policy goals, the President’s attempts to deport undocumented workers will face intense political pressure, in this instance from a coalition of immigrants’ rights groups. The United Farm Workers (UFW), a Latino/Latina agricultural union based in California which advocates nationally on behalf of immigrant farm workers, will no doubt be at the forefront of the political battle. Before Trump was in office, the UFW worked closely with both the Obama administration and the Clinton campaign on immigration reform, attempting to forestall the then-President-Elect’s deportation plans.

The workers are worried, but they are not ready to give up. They are fighting back. They are now holding meetings to make plans for marches, rallies and more. The UFW will be the first to remind the American public that farm workers of all stripes need the public’s help and attention — now, more than ever.

Thomas Washington is Head Librarian at the Albany Academy for Girls. He has been a Co-op member since relocating to Albany from Washington, DC in 2015.