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How Trump’s Skewed View of Rural America and Agriculture Threatens the Welfare of Farmworkers

Trump wrote an executive order on the rural US as if farmworkers don’t exist.

Trump wrote an executive order on rural America as if farmworkers don't exist. (Photo: Jacob Anikulapo / Flickr)

On April 25, President Trump issued an “Executive Order on Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America.” He truly went out of his way to avoid mentioning farmworkers. The order discusses farmers and ranchers and directs agencies to take actions to serve their interests and support “rural communities.” But other than promise those farmers and ranchers a “reliable workforce,” farmworkers are nowhere to be found.

There is not one word about improving the living and working conditions of the 2.5 million agricultural workers who labor on farms and ranches. Reading between the vaguely-written lines, the president’s intent is to encourage agency policies and actions that benefit agricultural businesses at the expense of the health and well-being of farmworkers and their families.

The promise of a “reliable workforce” is an oblique reference to the reality that the majority of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants. Some growers have expressed concern that Trump’s actual and threatened deportations could remove much of their labor force.

Trump’s assurance of a “reliable workforce” probably means he’s willing to support immigration and labor law changes to provide employers with workers who have little choice but to accept the wages and working conditions imposed on them. Guestworker programs, like the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program, accomplish that goal. Despite his vilification of immigrants for taking jobs away from US workers, Trump uses guestworkers at Mar-a-Lago in Florida and the Trump Winery in Virginia.

He seems likely to support converting the farm labor force into a system of vulnerable guestworkers. His vehement opposition to regulation suggests that his Department of Labor would slash H-2A program wage rates and other protections for US and foreign workers.

The appropriate policy solution at the intersection of immigration and labor policy is legislation that grants undocumented farmworkers and their family members the opportunity to obtain immigration status and citizenship. But Trump did not say that.

The Executive Order instructs federal officials from numerous agencies to participate in a “Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity” that will be led by the Secretary of Agriculture and produce a report with recommendations. There is obvious bias in who Trump believes the Task Force should listen to. The EO tells the Task Force to provide state and local government officials “and farmers, ranchers, foresters, and other rural stakeholders — with an opportunity to suggest to the Task Force legislative, regulatory, and policy changes.” It would not have been difficult to mention farmworkers had there been any intention to consider their interests.

By writing an Executive Order on rural America as if farmworkers don’t exist, the Trump Administration sends the message that farmworkers don’t matter despite their important presence in our food system. It recalls Trump’s January statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when he avoided saying that Jewish people were among the Nazis’s victims. In April he sought to rectify that during another speech. Perhaps he will one day consider farmworkers important to agricultural prosperity.

The EO pursues the Trump-Bannon war against regulations. The EO’s purpose is “to ensure that regulatory burdens do not unnecessarily encumber agricultural production, harm rural communities, constrain economic growth, hamper job creation, or increase the cost of food for Americans and our customers around the world.”

Noticeably absent from this policy statement is any commitment to improving economic security of farmworker families, protecting farmworkers, their children or the environment against pesticide poisoning, or enforcing the few labor standards that apply to agricultural workers. That omission strongly suggests that the latter goals would contravene Trump’s rule against “unnecessarily” burdening agricultural businesses.

One might have expected that the White House would acknowledge and encourage expansion of corporate social responsibility initiatives in the food and agriculture system. After all, in response to consumers’ strong interest in certified assurances that their fruits and vegetables are safe, healthy and responsibly produced, businesses increasingly are participating in innovative collaborations that address farm labor conditions. But the EO offers no such encouragement.

Trump gives what is at best lip service to consumers’ interests in government regulation of food safety to avoid pesticide poisoning and outbreaks of salmonella, listeria and other food-borne illnesses. The Task Force is to seek to “improve food safety” but is warned that it must “ensure that regulations and policies implementing Federal food safety laws are based on science and account for the unique circumstances of farms and ranches.” That’s code for “we don’t like regulations.”

The EO’s adopts a reasonable intent to “promote American agriculture and protect the rural communities where food, fiber, forestry, and many of our renewable fuels are cultivated.” Unfortunately, Trump’s order fails to address in any meaningful way the challenges experienced by agricultural workers and their families who are so important to rural communities and the economy.

If the content of the Executive Order left any ambiguity about its bias, clarity was achieved by the context. The President issued the EO during a “Farmers Roundtable” on the very first day in office of the new Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and in the presence of more than a dozen farmers and agribusiness representatives. As it revealed its agenda on farming and rural communities, this Administration saw no reason to involve farmworkers.

The Executive Order and the manner in which it was issued demonstrate disrespect toward farmworkers and dishonors the difficult, often dangerous work they perform. Trump and Perdue displayed no interest in addressing farmworkers’ interests or concerns. The Administration’s message was that it intends to serve the interests of farmers, not workers.

Farmworkers are human beings — not commodities, not beasts of burden, not machines and not invisible. They contribute to businesses, to communities and to the nation. Farmworkers are essential to our agricultural system and rural communities. They deserve better from our government.

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