With the president already taking a bow because illegal border crossings have fallen sharply in between January and February, proponents of Trump's policies are thrilled. But his new, tougher stance on undocumented immigrants will likely be felt the most by those needing a labor force for growing and harvesting food crops.
Additionally, there are also reports of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. who are reluctant to work for fear of getting caught, according to Food Dive
If anyone thinks this might not be a problem, think again. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that over half of the all U.S. farm workers are undocumented immigrants. And in 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated there were 8.0 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. labor force. A more recent Pew Research Center report says that more undocumented farm workers are leaving the U.S. than coming into the country.
The Mexican Farm Labor Agreement of 1942
And just to be sure everyone understands the problem, a study conducted in 2014
under the auspices of the American Farm Bureau Federation found that 525,000 or about half of hired farm workers are undocumented immigrants. “Labor is farmers’ third highest expense, accounting for 17 percent of production costs for the sector as a whole and up to 40-50 percent in labor-intensive subsectors such as fruit, vegetables, and horticulture.”
Farm labor is deeply rooted in the history of our country dating back to the southern border’s establishment in 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War. Before the 1930s, the Mexican labor force moved back-and-forth between the U.S. and Mexico freely, but then came the Great Depression.
This period of time when jobs were scarce bred resentment between Americans and the over 500,000 people of Mexican heritage, many of them U.S. citizens. Mexicans just weren't welcome here. But, as Modern Farmer says, at the start of our entry into WWII, "we dusted off the welcome mat" via the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement of 1942
, commonly known as the bracero (or “strong-armed one”) program.
The agreement guaranteed decent living conditions (sanitation, adequate shelter, and food) and a minimum wage of 30 cents an hour. The agreement was extended by the Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951, enacted as an amendment to the Agricultural Act of 1949. It finally was terminated in 1964 due to alleged worker abuses and complaints that the act took American jobs.
Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Union
Activist Cesar Chavez grew up picking fruits and vegetables in the fields of California. He founded the National Farm Workers Association (precursor to the United Farm Workers union) along with fellow activist Dolores Huerta in 1962. The whole point of the movement was to get a guarantee of fair wages for farm workers who were notoriously underpaid and treated poorly at that time.
Chavez organized a number of protests by farm workers, with probably the most famous being the Salad Bowl Strike of 1970
. Both the California growers and the Teamsters Union, the largely Hispanic UFW, walked off the job on August 23, 1970, in what became the biggest farm strike in American history.
The strike targeted lettuce growers and lasted until March 26, 1971. In the meantime, the price of iceberg lettuce more than tripled, and thousands of acres of lettuce were plowed under as crops spoiled on the ground. One positive action to come out of the strike was the enactment of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975.
American farms today are already facing labor shortages
As you sit in your favorite restaurant, contemplating a trip to the 50-plus item salad bar, or just a trip to the grocery store, remember where those fruits and vegetables come from, and the people who labor to get those food products to your plate. Over 50 percent
of those farm workers are undocumented immigrants.
And if the thought of not having enough farm workers to pick our crops doesn't move you, don't forget the 20 percent tax on imported goods that Trump and most Republicans would like to enact. Just think of it - A shortage of farm workers and a 20 percent tax of imported goods, including food products, by the way, would certainly set the U.S. economy into a tailspin.