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Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, Harvest covers agriculture-related topics through a network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.

Increased Immigration Enforcement Sets Agriculture Industry On Edge

Luke Runyon
Harvest Public Media

After hundreds of arrests of undocumented immigrants by immigration police, the Trump administration’s increased focus on immigration enforcement has some of the country’s largest farm groups worried.

Undocumented immigrants make up a significant portion of the country’s agricultural workforce.A 2016 Pew Research Center study showed undocumented workers are in about 26 percent of the nation’s farm jobs, the highest percentage among all occupations Pew included in the study. A crackdown on immigrant workers could put farms at-risk, and agricultural trade groups are taking precautions.

“I think it’s fair to say that everyone in agriculture is nervous and on edge,” says Jackie Klippenstein, an executive with Dairy Farmers of America, a co-op that counts 14,000 dairy farms in 48 states among its members.

In the last decade, the nation’s dairies have frequently been the subject of immigration audits, where workers have been charged with using false documents and owners find themselves coughing up thousands of dollarsin fines. Many dairy farmers already struggle to find enough labor to keep farms up and running, Klippenstein says, and raids make it even harder to fill positions milking cows and tending to the herd.

“Farmers can’t grow, they can’t make long-term plans if they don’t have a stable, legal workforce,” Klippenstein says. “And so without a doubt, this is the number one issue.”

Dairy Farmers of America says it is stepping up its outreach to members to explain the rights and obligations dairy owners have when under scrutiny by federal authorities, Klippenstein says. The group will also be hosting a workshop with a labor attorney at its annual meeting.

Other farm organizations, like the Western Growers Association, which primarily represents produce growers on the West Coast and in the Southwest, have started distributing literatureto farmers and immigrant workers on what to do if the subject of an immigration raid.

Meanwhile, meatpacking companies, another sector of the agricultural economy reliant on immigrant and refugee labor, are mixed on the topic of immigration.

In an opinion column for the Huffington Post, Cargill chairman David MacLennan says his company employs immigrants in both highly specialized roles and in its production facilities, and any limits to immigration and refugee resettlement could be disruptive.

“Unfortunately, the current climate has many of our smartest people from outside the U.S. questioning whether they want to stay here,” MacLennan writes. “Are they really welcome in our communities? Is this still a positive environment in which to live and raise their kids?"

The world’s largest meatpacking company, JBS, which has its North American headquarters in Greeley, Colorado, says it doesn’t anticipate any complications from increased immigration enforcement. Some facilities under JBS ownership now, formerly part of Swift’s network of beef and pork plants, were part of a large-scale immigration sweep in 2006.

“For nearly a decade, we have focused on incorporating best practices in hiring and compliance to ensure the lawful employment of all of our team members,” JBS USA spokeswoman Misty Barnes said in an emailed statement. “We fully support and celebrate our legal, diverse workforce, which includes refugees, asylees, native-born and foreign-born individuals who are all important, valued members of our team.”

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.