Across Americaâ€™s orchards and crop fields, a shrinking supply of migrants has already driven pay up faster than in the broader workforce. President Donald Trumpâ€™s immigration policy may turbocharge that trend.
Wages for US fieldworkers rose 36 percent over the past decade through the conclusion of last yearâ€™s harvest in October, compared with 27 percent among non-farm employees, government data show. Reducing the supply of labor wouldnâ€™t just cause pay gains to accelerate: The Trump administrationâ€™s expanded deportations for undocumented immigrants could put some growers out of business if the actions arenâ€™t accompanied by increases in workers available through legal guest-worker programs.
â€œYou would see operations just shut down,â€ said Zaid Kurdieh, who employs about two dozen legal immigrants at Norwich Meadows Farm in central New York state. â€œEven if you fill the gap with legal workers, the wages will jump just to get people to work,â€ said Kurdieh, whose 80-acre organic farm supplies a wide range of vegetables to farmersâ€™ markets in New York and New Jersey.
While policy shifts on taxes and health care are months or years from taking effect â€” much less having a broad influence on the worldâ€™s largest economy â€” farms and their workers may provide a more real-time look at the impact of a signature Trump action. Other industries with a significant proportion of undocumented workers include construction and hospitality, with one study suggesting that unauthorized immigrants contribute about 3 percent of private-sector gross domestic product.
Trumpâ€™s immigration plan, outlined in memos on Tuesday, would add 15,000 border-enforcement agents to enforce immigration laws and expand the categories of undocumented immigrants targeted for expulsion. The administration is arguing the moves are necessary to fulfill campaign promises to restore the integrity of national borders, while critics call it a detailed blueprint for the mass deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The extent of actual deportations and the systemâ€™s capacity to handle them is unclear. Officials havenâ€™t given targets for the number of expulsions, after more than 2.7 million during former President Barack Obamaâ€™s eight-year term. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly vowed on Thursday that there would be no â€œmassâ€ deportations. While much of the US farm economy is mechanized, fresh produce and dairy remain heavily dependent on human labor. Immigrants, both legal and unauthorized, have supplied that labor for generations. American farms have already faced worker shortages from Obamaâ€™s stepped-up deportations and a decline in arrivals from Mexico, traditionally the main source of migrants.
About a quarter of the US farm workforce, more than 300,000 people, donâ€™t have valid immigration papers, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center. Other studies suggest the number may be more than 1 million and as much as 70 percent of all workers. The sector is already struggling: The Agriculture Department said Feb. 7 that farm profits this year will fall for the fourth consecutive year, the first time thatâ€™s happened since the 1970s.
An immigration policy focused on closing the border would shift as much as 61 percent of US fruit production to other countries and send jobs to nearby nations such as Mexico, in part because wage costs would make US foods less competitive, according to a 2014 study commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest US farmer group. Cutting the total unauthorized workforce by roughly half, meanwhile, would push wages for undocumented and legal guest farm workers as much as 40 percent higher than they would have been otherwise over a 15-year period, according to a 2012 study by the US Department of Agriculture.