Illegal immigration raids troubling US farmers

Recent raids by US immigration authorities targeting undocumented immigrants are creating a wave of distress throughout America's agricultural sector, an industry that's heavily dependent on foreign workers.

Hundreds of arrests have been made in at least six states over the past week. That's left undocumented workers afraid to travel and farmers pondering whether they can risk hiring them, according to organisations representing both groups.

Farms in the western US have already dealt with a dwindling labour supply, partly because of tightened border security, for years, said Pete Aiello, general manager at Gilroy, California-based Uesugi Farms. He worries that things will get worse this year and his company may not be able to find enough contractors.

"The mood is not good," Aiello said. "It's one of pretty significant trepidation."

Uesugi grows bell and chili peppers, napa cabbage, sweet corn and strawberries across 2,023 hectares in California, Arizona and Mexico. Its experience typifies that of many farmers in that part of country. During its seasonal peak, Uesugi takes on about 600 contract workers - most of them born in Mexico - to help pick, sort and pack its produce.

More than half of US farm workers are undocumented, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. President Donald Trump's threats against immigrants could add up to higher grocery bills as growers and companies wrestle with labour shortages, according to studies from the bureau and the US Department of Agriculture.

The recent series of raids were part of the Trump administration's January 25 order to crack down on the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US. The administration is focused on "protecting the security of our country through interior enforcement," White House policy adviser Stephen Miller said over the weekend.

"There's a lot of anxiety out in the country on labour issues," said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations at the Farm Bureau, a Washington-based trade group. "It's a real issue, and it's causing farmers to make hard decisions."

Trump's actions have the potential to strip farms and meat-processing plants of labour, and the threat comes at a time when there are already signs of a strained work force.

"We continue to see some signs of labour tightness affecting staffing availability across the industry, especially for new operations, which is another factor that could impact production growth for the whole industry in 2017," Bill Lovette, chief executive officer of Pilgrim's Pride, one of the biggest US meat processors, said.

The immigration crackdown may also mean rising grocery costs. An approach of only enforcement and not reform could increase food prices by as much as 6 per cent as fruit, vegetable and livestock production wanes, according to the Farm Bureau study. It could also create further hardship for crop growers and livestock operators after years of drought in the agriculture markets sparked the worst slump for US farm income since the 1970s.

source: Bloomberg

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