Increased immigration enforcement is eroding the labor force that serves as the engine behind American agriculture. Roughly half of all farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, with most performing manual labor.
Stepped-up border security had already reduced the number of farmworkers crossing into the United States before Donald Trump became president, but increased use of raids and immigration checkpoints are also preventing those already here from moving around the country.
Bernie Thiel, who farms near Lubbock, Texas, had to watch his yellow squash crop rot in the fields this year because there were no farmworkers to pick them on his 60-acre plot.
“It’s very, very frustrating because we can move this product. The demand is there,” Thiel told the Texas Observer. “The labor is just not available.”
Undocumented farmworkers who live in south Texas used to come north to Lubbock at harvest time. Now, they are too afraid of being arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Border Patrol if they venture onto highways patrolled by the immigration police.
In upstate New York, farmers are facing a similar labor shortage. Farm owners told the Albany Times Union that they are reluctant to grow labor-intensive crops like cherries and cabbage because the labor supply is interrupted by immigration enforcement.
According to federal labor statistics, nationally there were 30,000 fewer farmworkers in the spring of 2017 than in the same period in 2016. As the Trump raids lead to increasing uncertainty about the agricultural labor force, many large agricultural firms are considering moving their farming to Mexico.
“Raids and deportations are disruptive. They can scare away other workers — leaving employers scrambling to maintain production,” writes Eduardo Porter, economics columnist for the New York Times.