Republican lawmakers celebrate National Agriculture Day without celebrating immigrant farmworkers

Where have all the farmworkers gone?

Mexican laborers harvest yellow onions on April 11, 2007 in Rio Grande City, Texas.  (Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
Mexican laborers harvest yellow onions on April 11, 2007 in Rio Grande City, Texas. (Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Tuesday marked National Agriculture Day, a day that celebrates farmers and brings awareness to the industry’s essential role in daily life. Republican lawmakers including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence took the opportunity to celebrate by using the #NationalAgricultureDay, #ThankAFarmer, and #AgDay hashtags on social media to thank farmers across America.

Farmers are certainly worthy of praise given that the country’s 2.1 million farms generate food and fuel for people living in the United States and in other countries. But any quick social media search would turn up an inconsistency. Republican lawmakers lauding American farmers are, at the same time, erasing farmworkers, particularly immigrant ones. The farm sector heavily relies on undocumented immigrants to retain a reliable, skilled workforce. Roughly one-half of the 2.5 million seasonal workers on U.S. farms and ranches are undocumented, according to Farmworker Justice, and they make up a big part the economy.

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Yet, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has gone after undocumented immigrants across the United States in a variety of industries. Immigration raids have indiscriminately taken in farmworkers, dairy workers, chemistry professors, and parents. As Republican lawmakers support such harsh immigration agendas, their indirect praise for farmers seems insincere, considering the fact that farms are reliant on immigrants. And yet here they are:

President Donald Trump

In a tweet Tuesday morning, Trump claimed the nation was founded by farmers. But his assertion willfully ignored the fact that slaves did much of the labor.

Vice President Mike Pence

Like his boss, Pence tweeted that the administration has been working to stand up on behalf of the country’s “farmers, producers, ranchers, foresters, and everyone involved in agriculture. And I promise you WE ALWAYS WILL.”

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Immigrant farmworkers would likely disagree with the claim that Pence works tirelessly to stand up for them. Pence and other Trump administration officials do work tirelessly to deport immigrants, however. Across the country, arrests of undocumented immigrants were up 41 percent in 2017 as compared to 2016.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue

During a tour of California’s agriculture industry last month, Perdue appeared to understand the concerns of farmers who asked if he could advocate on behalf of immigrant workers. He told them that “Trump ‘gets what you’re saying‘ and is not out to chase workers from the fields,” Los Angeles Times reporter Geoffrey Mohan reported.

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“The only thing I can tell you is we have very quietly spoken with our Department of Homeland Security people who regulate ICE and indicated some of their publicized type of raids really hurt the people who are out here trying to work,” Perdue said.

In a tweet Tuesday, Perdue claimed that the Trump administration’s policies are “making it easier for farmers, ranchers, foresters, and producers to be successful and productive.” On the contrary, the president’s executive orders on immigration to deport more people and conduct more workplace raids have made immigrant farmworkers afraid of leaving their houses. And in fact, farmers have expressed concern over a shortage of workers since Trump took office.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R)

In a tweet, McConnell thanked his state’s farmers and farm families for being a “major driver of our state’s economy.” Kentucky’s $4.4 billion agriculture industry relies heavily on migrant farmworkers employed by tobacco fields that are in constant need of seasonal help. Many of these workers are in Kentucky legally on the H-2A visa, a guest worker program subject to massive exploitation and abuse by employers. Under the program, employers are required to provide housing and transportation. But a House bill called the Agricultural Guestworker Act may eliminate these protections and make it easier for employers to renege on the promise of housing and transportation. Wage requirements would be removed, the local NPR station WKMS reported last year, requiring employers to “base pay on state minimum wage rates.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R)

McCarthy said he’s “grateful” for farmers and producers across California for “hard work which benefits our great nation.” But it would appear he’s not grateful enough to stop ICE from conducting immigration raids in his congressional district. Late last month and into early this month, at least two dozen undocumented immigrants in Kern County — many of whom were farmworkers — were detained for potential deportation proceedings. Advocacy groups reported that 24 people were detained “during pre-dawn busts while on their way to the fields,” Bakersfield.com reported.

Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS)

Marshall praised the agriculture industry for contributing $992 billion to the U.S. economy and boasted that his congressional district has more than 45,000 farmers. Marshall is a rare Republican lawmaker who has publicly acknowledged the need for a year-round agricultural and dairy workforce and a revision to the country’s immigration system.

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But there is still a lot of work to be done in his congressional district, particularly with respect to bad employers who take advantage of immigrants. As the Associated Press reported two weeks ago, several immigrants working in Syracuse, Kansas were found to be working as slaves who had to work to pay off the cost of being smuggled into the country. At least one person worked for 182.5 hours at an auto shop, which works closely with a cattle ranch. A $1,300 “cash advance repayment” was taken out of his $1,828.32 pre-tax pay. He was left with $207.46, or about $1 an hour for his take-home pay.

Many other Republican lawmakers also published inspiration tweets showing their gratitude for farmers. Yet most of them hold stridently anti-immigrant positions. Republicans Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Kevin Brady (TX) may be grateful for their state’s farmers and ranchers, but they both have harsh immigration positions that have not helped these people. As the Texas Observer noted, the state’s farmers and dairy operators have struggled to find year-round workers.


Bottom Line: It’s just as easy to be grateful for farmworkers as we are for farmers. But gratitude means little when the president has given the green light to round up all undocumented immigrants. The previous Obama administration did not have a perfect system of detaining immigrants, but it did generally direct ICE resources to detain the most serious criminal immigrants. With the Trump administration, however, it seems anything goes.