Beware the unintended consequence. That’s the lesson unfolding in the upstate agriculture industry as farmers deal with the collateral damage of the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
Legal immigrants perform critical labor on farms around the country, including upstate and Western New York. They pick apples, plant crops, tend animals. But they are worried – even though they are here legally – about being questioned, misclassified or harassed by law enforcement. That worries their employers, who value the labor of their workers, and it hurts local merchants when potential patrons fear traveling away from their farms.
Unless Americans want to pay more for their food – and does anyone think they do? – the problem cannot be allowed to fester. Congress needs to improve the guest worker program that makes farming possible and, more fundamentally, agree to an immigration reform plan that relieves this issue permanently.
The national meltdown over immigration – legal and illegal – is the root of the problem on upstate farms. Suspicion follows even legal workers laboring here under the authority of the government’s H-2A visa program, which authorizes guest workers. Those people typically do hard, physical, low-paid work from which many Americans recoil.
But the backlash against immigrants is complicating life for farmers, who worry they won’t be able to keep their help or, worse, won’t be able to find it at all, as the national mood drives down the number of people willing to work in fear.
The first solution to this problem is to streamline the H-2A program, making it easier for immigrants to make use of it, ensuring that compliance rules are simple and taking steps to protect visa holders from legal threats. It’s not just the right thing to do for workers that we need, but for farmers who hire them and shoppers who consume the goods they plant and pick.
Even more important, though, is for the country to get past its stalemate over illegal immigration. It’s a real issue, of course, and needs to be attended to, but it’s not the most important matter on the national agenda. What’s more, it is one that can be resolved by people of good will in both parties who are willing to focus on facts.
First is that the country simply isn’t going to deport millions of illegal immigrants. Americans will not stand by as good people are abused and families are torn apart. We need a better answer, very much like the one that the Senate approved in 2013. Give illegal immigrants a path to legal status or citizenship that requires payment of back taxes, possibly a fine and getting in line behind those who are here legally. That’s not unreasonable.
Some won’t hear of that, insisting that all who are here illegally must be sent packing for the sake of a legal purity that is rarely applied in other contexts. At some point, though, reality must intrude.
That doesn’t mean no one can be deported. Illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes should certainly be ejected, for example. And modern technology – sensors, drones and so on – can be used to protect the borders, far more effectively than a wall ever could. Acknowledging the fact of illegal immigrants doesn’t obviate the need for sensible and effective border security.
Finding a resolution that most Americans can accept is the only way to puncture this boil on our civic life. The extremists need to be politely turned away so that people with common sense and good hearts can attend to a problem that is dragging millions into its unnecessary vortex.