Michigan farmers fear immigration crackdown

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Stricter illegal immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump is worrying many Michigan farmers, who say it could hurt their businesses by worsening a migrant labor shortage already years in the making.

As the Trump administration has stepped up deportation of criminals among the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, even farmers who voted for the Republican businessman say they fear it could result in the short run in unpicked crops.

Southwest Michigan farmer Fred Leitz said he needs about 225 laborers this year to harvest his crops, but is concerned the seasonal workers – many of whom are Hispanic and travel from Florida and Texas to his farm – will be too frightened to make the long trek. Last year, Leitz said 144 laborers came from Mexico through a federal temporary agriculture worker visa program.

“If I didn’t have migrant labor, I couldn’t plant it,” said Leitz, a pro-Trump farmer who grows tomatoes and cucumbers at his Sodus farm.

The stepped-up enforcement “creates anxiety” for farmers across the state and workers who fear harassment or deportation while traveling from Southern states to Michigan, said Bob Boehm, manager of the Michigan Farm Bureau’s Center for Commodity, Farm and Industry Relations.

“You can’t just tighten the borders without coming up with a viable guest worker program,” Boehm said.

Clover Adams, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said: “It just seems like even those folks that are here legally are fearful.”

The number of foreign workers allowed on Michigan farms has surged nearly 14 fold from 276 laborers in 2011 to 3,800 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Overall, about 40,000 to 45,000 migrant workers come to Michigan annually to help pick crops, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Farmers say they desperately need the foreign workers, approved through the federal H-2A temporary visa program, to get their crops picked on time.

But it’s still not enough to quell the labor shortage in part because farmers say the visa program is cumbersome, costly and time-consuming. Nearly a year ago, the American Farm Bureau Federation warned that federal delays in processing guest farm work visas approached the crisis stage in 20 states including Michigan.

Farmers such as Leitz, who says he doesn’t regret voting for Trump, hope the Republican president will reform the visa program.

“We’re going to have a very strong border, but our businesses will not suffer,” Trump told The Detroit News during a Sept. 3 campaign visit to Detroit. “We need workers, and we will have all of the workers we need.”

The farm labor shortage has grown this decade. It was exacerbated in 2012, when freezes killed Michigan fruits and vegetables spurred by an unusually warm early winter, leaving less work for an already dwindling labor force.

The Farm Bureau is slowly trying to increase the number of international workers – most from Mexico and farther south – but Boehm said “it’s difficult to get people to do some of these jobs.” Some migrant laborers have grown too old and their children sometimes seek better jobs or go to college, he said.

Most Americans don’t want to pick crops because it is grueling work that does not pay well by U.S. standards, Boehm said.

Because machines can’t be used to pick apples, asparagus, cucumbers, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables, farmers rely on workers who might be here illegally, he said. It puts both the workers and farmers in a precarious situation as Trump promises tighter borders and increased deportations, Boehm said.

“I know that nobody hires an undocumented worker,” he said.

But many workers could have fake documents that look real and questioning them could result in discrimination accusations, Boehm said. So farmers usually operate on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis, he said.

John Kran, who is on the national legislative council for the Michigan Farm Bureau, noted that farmers support border security and don’t want “anyone that’s dangerous or a criminal working on their farms or around their families.”

Turning to the temporary visa program for more relief won’t work without major reforms, agriculture experts said. Trump’s executive order adds more uncertainty and strain, said Amanda Culp, a spokeswoman for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

“If there is an increase in enforcement, raids and deportations, there will be less labor available for already labor-strapped producers,” Culp said. “This will require more producers to use the H-2A program, which will further exacerbate the demands and inefficiency of the visa process.

“The U.S. agriculture community needs a definitive signal from the administration and Congress on the importance of foreign labor to food production, and the serious need to rework visa programs.”

A few miles away from Leitz in Sodus, 70-year-old Russell Costanza said he is pessimistic about how long his 600-acre Roma tomato and cucumber farm can survive amid labor shortage fears and competition with imported vegetables.

About 125 to 130 seasonal workers have picked crops at his farm for the last 10-15 years, Costanza said. Most workers find him through the federal visa program.

The visa workers are paid an average of $12.75 an hour by law – higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and Michigan’s minimum of of $8.90 – so Costanza said he struggles to compete with farmers abroad who pay their laborers less.

He used to grow several different types of squash, bell peppers and pickles. But he stopped when he couldn’t turn a profit anymore.

Repairs on his aging farm equipment are costly, and Costanza said he hasn’t been able to afford buying new tractors or trucks.

“So slowly we’re going out of business,” he said. “You can pick any fruit and vegetable, dairy farmer and they’ll tell you same thing.”

Costanza said he voted for Trump. He said he didn’t think Democrat Hillary Clinton would have improved the situation.

Clinton would have legalized illegal migrant laborers, he said, and “as soon as they’re legal, they’d leave the farm.”

Costanza said he still supports Trump.

“I knew there would be enforcement,” he said. “But the public is demanding a strong border. I felt, short term, Trump would be better. Long term, we would be forced into an H-2A program which would be so costly” that farms couldn’t do business.

But Costanza is determined to overcome the adversity.

“We’re gonna stay here and fight,” he said. “If we go down, if we go broke, we go broke. I don’t wanna lose the battle.”