Los Angeles Times

Trump should tour farms — sans ICE

- GEORGE SKELTON in sacramento

Hard-liners who want to deport all immigrants living here illegally should visit a California farm at harvest. In fact, that’s especially a good idea for President Trump.

The president might learn a thing or two about undocument­ed farmworker­s and the urgent need for comprehens­ive immigratio­n reform by watching, for example, peach picking on a sweltering summer day in the San Joaquin Valley.

A crop harvest can’t be postponed until there’s a labor force large enough to handle the job. When it’s ripe, the crop must be gathered or it rots.

We all know that, but mostly in an abstract way. We don’t stand in the boots of a farmer worrying at dawn whether enough field hands will show. They’re mostly undocument­ed and often leery of possible raids by federal immigratio­n agents.

“I’ve seen in the Salinas Valley lots of lettuce left in the field because of a lack of workforce,” says Jamie Johansson, president of the

California Farm Bureau Federation.

“There’s definitely a worker shortage,” adds Johansson, who farms olives and citrus in Butte County. “It’s become more difficult over the last 10 years.”

That’s true for several reasons, not just Trump’s raids.

Illegal immigratio­n has slowed, not only during the Trump presidency but also under Barack Obama’s. There’s an attrition of the labor pool, says Tom Nassif, president and chief executive of the Western Growers Assn.

The Mexican economy has been improving and “Mexico itself is importing farmworker­s from Central America,” Nassif says. Plus, farmworker parents hold higher ambitions for their children and increasing numbers are going to college — many of them the so-called Dreamers.

Moreover, the California economy has greatly improved and there are jobs in constructi­on and restaurant­s that beat farm work.

“It’s getting worse every day,” Nassif says. “We’re seeing shortages of 25% to 40%, depending on the crops and times of year.” Fruit trees and row crops that rely heavily on hand labor are particular­ly vulnerable, he says.

Farmers should pay more, critics charge. But they’re paying $15 to $18 an hour, Johansson says. And citizens can’t be lured at any wage.

Trump is making California agricultur­e nervous because of his roundups of undocument­ed immigrants and newly imposed tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. There’s concern about retaliatio­n by foreign countries against California farm products.

Trump was down on the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego on Tuesday ogling huge prototypes of a $25-billion wall designed to keep out immigrants. But in California, farmers are trying to get more of these workers into the country and keep them here.

Ironically, Trump’s immigratio­n and tariff policies are creating jitters especially in the California farm belt, which gave the Republican his strongest support in this blue state that voted lopsidedly for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Ten Central Valley agricultur­e counties sided with Trump over Clinton.

“They’re culturally Republican, more conservati­ve,” veteran GOP consultant Rob Stutzman says of farm belt voters. “They view the ruling and elite classes in coastal cities differentl­y than they see themselves. It’s a different, harder life in the valley.”

There are distant danger signs for Republican­s, however, even in the farm belt. Among new voter registrati­ons, only 22% are Republican and 29% are Democrats, according to Paul Mitchell, who heads Political Data Inc. More important, 40% are independen­t, shunning both parties, and 43% are Latino.

Economics professor Daniel Sumner, who heads the UC Davis Agricultur­e Issues Center, says the biggest immediate problem for California farmers with Trump’s immigratio­n and tariff policies is uncertaint­y.

“The rhetoric makes people nervous,” Sumner says. “Workers may leave California for places they feel are safer, like in the Midwest.”

The 25% tariff on imported steel and 10% on aluminum not only may spur foreign retaliatio­n against California’s $25 billion worth of annual agricultur­e exports, but will probably raise prices on farm machinery, Sumner adds.

“A tomato harvester is made of steel,” the agricultur­e economist says. “You may have an old one wrapped in bailing wire and are planning to buy a new one that costs $300,000. Then you find out it’s going to be $320,000. That means one piece of expensive equipment doesn’t get sold. And the whole economy operates less efficientl­y.”

Trump has exempted Canada and Mexico from the steel tariffs, at least initially. Sumner wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t soften the tariffs further when countries start to retaliate.

“Almost never does a president say, ‘Gee, I was wrong. You win. You’re tougher than I am,’ ” he says. (And certainly not Trump.) “What they do say is, ‘We achieved our objective.’ And that may well happen here.”

But even if Trump ultimately backs down, California agricultur­e could be hurt in the meantime.

“These things have consequenc­es,” Sumner says. “People start buying from somewhere else. That can happen just with rhetoric, and that’s the worry.”

California agricultur­e is looking for legislatio­n that will provide legal documentat­ion for current workers and “bring them out of the shadows,” Johansson says. But that’s seen as amnesty by many hardliners and is politicall­y toxic.

“I see it as common decency,” Nassif says. “There’s no question the vast majority of field workers are falsely documented. I’d say of 500,000 farmworker­s in the state, 70% are falsely documented.”

Falsely documented is a polite word for phony papers. Give them real ones.

Trump should book an August educationa­l tour of dusty Central Valley farm fields. And leave his immigratio­n agents at home.

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 ?? Gary Coronado Los Angeles Times ?? PRESIDENT Trump’s immigratio­n and tariff policies are creating jitters, especially in the California farm belt that gave the Republican his strongest support in this blue state. Above, a farmworker culls rows of lettuce in Salinas.
Gary Coronado Los Angeles Times PRESIDENT Trump’s immigratio­n and tariff policies are creating jitters, especially in the California farm belt that gave the Republican his strongest support in this blue state. Above, a farmworker culls rows of lettuce in Salinas.

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