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Jared Kushner’s Immigration Plan Collides with Agriculture Industry

ILE - In this Friday, July 27, 2012, file photo, workers harvest wild blueberries at the Ridgeberry Farm in Appleton, Maine. Maine's governor and members of its blueberry industry fear losing growers due to a depression in prices that has made growing the beloved crop a less reliable way to …
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File
NEIL MUNRO

Jared Kushner’s effort to craft an immigration and wage compromise is reportedly being roiled by the Department of Agriculture’s effort to provide farming companies with many more low-wage visa workers.

That economic reality is a political problem for Kushner, who said April 23 that President Donald Trump’s top priority is protecting Americans’ wages. “We have a lot of objectives … Number one, he wants to protect American wages,” Kushner said as he briefly described the reform plan that he will present to the president in the next two weeks. He continued:

We are putting together a very detailed proposal.

We are also working on a guest worker piece which is important for agricultural and a lot of seasonal work. My hope is that we can really do something that unifies people around what we are for in immigration.

Farm industry lobbyists say they want more and cheaper visa workers.

“We want a [labor] program that is easy for farmers to use, that gets the workers where and when they are needed,” Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Breitbart News. Farmers need a visa worker program “that does not put farms out of business because of extra added fees and business that have to be provided to H-2a workers,” she added.

But the obvious fix to Kushner’s migrants vs. wages problem is government support for greater use of robots, said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies. Agriculture robots are getting cheaper, and they will not quit the farm for a job in the city and will not impose costs on local schools, hospitals, and police forces, he said.

“If the White House feels the need to service the ag[riculture] lobby, why not propose mechanization-loan guarantees to help small farmers wean themselves off stoop labor?” Krikorian wrote. “Rather than promise a chicken in every pot, why not a robot in every field?”

On April 23, Kushner hinted at this technology alternative, telling his audience that government is already aiding business productivity with many non-immigration policies:

We’ve figured how to make our country energy independent. We’ve increased the amount of energy we are creating which geopolitically is very important. We’re investing in the industries of the future — Artificial Intelligence, 5G, quantum computing– a lot of things that allow us to be long-term competitive.

Farm industry lobbyists insist they want more labor and they downplay the automation alternative.

“The technology has not been developed yet,” countered Crittenden. “You’re talking millions and millions of dollars to develop the technology,” she said. The federal government spends less than $80 million a year developing harvesting machinery for specialty crops, she said.

“The tipping point for robots is [farms’] access to capital,” said Will Rodger, the bureau’s director for policy communications. “Americans farmers, by and large, are eager to adopt new technology but they need to be financially prudent,” he said. “You will see a lot of people adopting technology quickly” if they have the funds to invest.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is trying to influence the Kushner plan. In February, he told farm industry leaders:

As this [immigration] debate continues, I want to make sure that agriculture is supplied with a legal workforce. At USDA, we have a young lawyer from Nebraska who works on this issue full time – some of you may know Kristi Boswell. She’s on our team and we are working closely with all agencies involved.

According to Perdue:

Agriculture is really a unique area within immigration. The people who come to America to work on farms and ranches are not taking jobs from Americans. They are not the people who are committing crimes. They are not the ones putting a burden on our criminal justice and welfare system. They just want to do a good job and provide for their families. They are important to agriculture and our economy.

Boswell is a former lobbyist at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The department did not respond to questions from Breitbart News.

Immigration reformers are concerned that the push for cheap labor by Perdue and Boswell will mulch Kushner’s developing plans. McClatchy reported:

“Every time meaningful employment and wage protections for American workers are finally within reach as part of an immigration reform proposal, agriculture lobbyists swoop in to gut the enforcement provisions or demand greater access to cheap foreign labor,” RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told McClatchy. “This has gone on for three decades.”

“Secretary Perdue serves at the pleasure of President Trump and should be a champion of his immigration agenda,” Hauman said. “He wasn’t nominated to be an in-house voice for employers who take advantage of low-wage illegal workers and seek to block the very reforms his boss ran on.”

Crittenden downplayed the sector’s impact on Kushner’s plans.

“There has not been a lot of conversation about the Kushner plan within the agriculture community,” Crittenden told Breitbart News. “They have kept it very close.”

Federal laws have temporarily prevented Boswell from talking to her former colleagues at the federation, Rodger said. “She can’t, not for another week,” he said.

The Farm Labor Economy

Various estimates suggest that farm companies employ roughly one million illegal aliens, many of who have families in the United States and who eventually move to jobs in towns and cities.

The resulting populations of low-wage immigrant farms workers — and their children — have helped turn California and Washington state into one-party Democratic strongholds.

The agriculture sector is also employing a growing number of H-2A visa workers in place of the many illegal aliens who went home or migrated into U.S. cities. The visa workers stay for a season and leave their families at home. In 2012, farmers imported 85,000 H-2A workers. That inflow grew to 242,000 workers in 2018 and may reach 260,000 in 2019.

But farm industry representatives complain the H-2As are getting more expensive and must be paid between $11 per hour and $15 per hour in 2019. The estimated hourly cost includes housing for the migrant workers as well as the cost of travel from and to their home countries and the number of hours that each foreign H-2A worker is allowed to work once they get into the United States.

“Farmers need a program that gives them flexibility in housing … a one-size-fits-all policy does not work,” Crittenden said. “Any way that we can reduce the overall costs,” she added.

A useful labor program would also provide “a very significant increase” in the farmers’ labor force, said Rodger.

Despite the complaints about the H-2A program, dairy industry groups have been lobbying Congress for several years to let dairy farms hire H-2A workers. The dairy industry has a lot of clout among Republicans representatives, partly because so many small and mid-sized dairy farms are deeply dependent on federal aid.

In August 2018, several West Coast farm groups blocked a bipartisan deal that would have created a bigger and cheaper visa worker program — dubbed H-2C — in exchange for mandatory use of the federal E-Verify system. The E-Verify system allowers employers to quickly verify the bona fides of job applicants and would allow the government to impose legal penalties if companies hire illegal immigrants.

The California groups blocked the deal even though many mid-sized farms are going bankrupt amid rising international economic pressure.

Crittenden argued that the workers in the agriculture industry have little or no impact on Americans workers. “I don’t think there is a real strong connection there,” partly because few Americans want to work on farms, she said.

But immigration reformers say the farm industry’s imported labor force reduces farm wages and deters Americans from applying for farm jobs. The imported supply of farmworkers also lowers wage pressure on the non-agricultural companies that hire Americans for non-farm jobs. Overall, the imported farmworkers lower wages, reduce investment in labor-saving technology, and shrink productivity for the rest of the economy, they warn.

Their warnings are backed up by multiple academic studies that show higher migration reduces technology investment by food companies — and by the current reality that Trump’s “Hire American” economic policy is helping to raise Americans’ wages, spur company investment in labor-saving machinery, and so raise productivity.

The United States already has a variety of large and small companies that develop, build, and maintain agriculture machinery and technology. They include John Deere, Oxbo, Lely, and a wide variety of specialized firms. European companies lead the market, but Chinese firms are advancing rapidly.

The machines are mostly used by big farms, which raise tough “row crops” — wheat, corn, soybeans, potatoes. That machinery allows U.S. farm companies to stay ahead of competition from the rising number of foreign farm companies that have lower wages, rising expertise, improving transportation and refrigeration technology, and plenty of cheap land and free sunshine.

However, U.S. farm companies are expanding to other countries to capture those geographic and labor advantages.  According to Driscoll’s, a leading grower of strawberries, blueberries, and other fruit:

Peak berry season occurs at different times of the year in different places. Driscoll’s berries are grown on family farms throughout the world, in growing regions that are carefully selected for their soil, climate and other environmental factors. That’s how we keep our promise to deliver the freshest, best tasting, highest quality berries year-round.

For many years, the supply of cheap migrant labor has discouraged investment by the U.S. farms, which grow specialty and delicate crops — such as strawberries, apples, peaches, and oranges.

But rising labor costs are driving them to adopt more machinery. For example, California vineyards are buying European-made grape harvesting machines, and various firms are developing robots that can pick delicate lettuce, strawberries, apples, and oranges.

Driscoll’s, for example, is now trying to raise U.S. workers’ productivity by growing strawberries in waist-high trays for easier manual picking. But the raised strawberry beds will also help robots pick the delicate fruit.

This growing use of technology is also being driven by emerging competition from manpower-saving warehouse farms. These warehouse farms are being built close to cities with plenty of labor, and they grow high-profit herbs, peppers, lettuce, and other specialty products under artificial light for wealthy urban consumers. “That is a growing industry for you, there is some movement in that direction, but the bulk of the agriculture economy is based on conventional agriculture,” said Crittenden.

U.S. dairy farms use much mechanical machinery to help their workers milk the cows two or three times every day of the year. But few American firms have bought European-developed cow-milking robots that allow cows to milk themselves. European farms have bought many of the robot cow milkers, partly because their labor costs and government subsidies are much higher than in the United States.

However, the shortage of farm labor is pushing more U.S. farmers to buy the robots, including the Dutch-designed Lely robots, which are assembled in Iowa.

“There are some farm robots out there, there are a few farms that have adopted that technology, but broader adoption is decades away,” said Crittenden.

Trump’s economic advisers have noted the value of agriculture technology.

“Over 35,000 robotic milking systems are in operation globally on dairy farms,” according to the March 2019 Economic Report of the President. “Farms using robotic milking systems are much more productive, selling 43 percent more milk per hired worker and 9 percent more milk per cow. Moreover, rather than displacing humans, the introduction of automation in dairy farms has allowed labor and management to reallocate their time toward maintaining animal health, analyzing records, and managing reproduction and nutrition on the farms.”

Since the early 1980s, U.S. slaughterhouses have used non-union, migrant labor to cut their costs.

But the shortage of labor under Trump’s “Hire American” policy — and rising overseas competition — are forcing U.S. meat processors to catch up with their Asian, European, and Australian rivals. New slaughterhouse robots are gradually matching workers’ ability to remove the prime cuts of meat which maximize profits in the competitive industry.

Immigration Reform

Amid the farm industry’s slowing and grudging modernization, immigration reform groups worry that the farm industry’s preference for more cheap labor will reverse Kushner’s declaration that protecting wages is Trump’s top immigration priority.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform posted a hard-hitting reminder of Trump’s campaign promises:

Reformers welcomed Kushner’s pairing of wage protections with the administration’s pro-business policies. After saying protecting wages is the top priority in Trump’s immigration reform, Kushner added:

We freed up companies to be able to invest capital, which is creating jobs — we’ve lowered the corporate tax rate and we’ve given a tax cut to individuals, which means there is more consumption. We’re working on trade deals … We’ve figured how to make our country energy independent. We’ve increased the amount of energy we are creating which geopolitically is very important. We’re investing in the industries of the future — Artificial Intelligence, 5G, quantum computing– a lot of things that allow us to be long-term competitive. And then also appointing a lot of conservative judges has allowed us and a lot of businesses to have certainty on what the law is, and so those things, if you couple them with maybe infrastructure [spending] and then immigration reform, I think that will keep out country competitive for the long run.

But those broader questions about immigration, wages, national economics, and politics are not the farm bureau’s concerns, said Rodger. “You’re talking about questions outside our bailiwick … At the farm bureau, our interest is to get workers for our members and to do it in a reasonably efficient way,” he said.

Each year, roughly four million young Americans join the workforce after graduating from high school or university.

But the federal government then imports about 1.1 million legal immigrants, refreshes a resident population of roughly 1.5 million white-collar visa workers — including roughly 1 million H-1B workers — in addition to approximately 500,000 blue-collar visa workers, and also tolerates about eight million illegal workers and the inflow of hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants.

This federal policy of flooding the market with cheap foreign white-collar graduates and blue-collar labor is intended to boost economic growth for investors.

This policy works by shifting enormous wealth from young employees towards older investors even as it also widens wealth gaps, reduces high-tech investment, increases state and local tax burdens, hurts children’s schools and college educations, pushes Americans away from high-tech careers, and sidelines millions of marginalized Americans, including many who are now struggling with fentanyl addictions. Mass migration moves business investment from the heartland to the coasts, explodes rents, shrivels real estate values in the Midwest, and rewards investors for creating low tech, labor-intensive workplaces.

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