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Dairy Farmers Fear Loss Of Labor Under Trump Immigration Actions


President Trump is shaking farm country to its core with his executive order to build a border wall and ramp up immigration enforcement. The federal government estimates about half of the nation's farm workers are here illegally. Farm groups say it's actually much more in some states. We're going to hear now from one state - New York - where dairy farmers and their employees fear that a crackdown is coming. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: We're about to meet a man who's worked on a huge dairy farm in rural New York state for nine years. We're not using the name of the farm or his name because he fears being deported. Today's his day off, and he's lounging on a couch in a trailer hidden from the road behind the barns in the manure storage pit. His brothers is frying up chicken wings for lunch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

SOMMERSTEIN: He's 36 with three kids and a wife back home in Guatemala. He says over and over, he doesn't need citizenship, just legal working papers. He can't understand why President Trump has been calling people like him criminals.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) Sure, some people have committed crimes. But the majority of us came here to work - not to steal, not to kill, nothing like that. We came here to scrape together a living.

SOMMERSTEIN: And dairy farmers need people like him as much as he needs the work. The fact is, many milk parlors at dairy farms around the country sound like this.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

SOMMERSTEIN: Mexican boleros blaring in rhythm to the hiss of milking equipment. See; dairy farmers don't control the price of their milk. The federal government does that. Cornell University's Thomas Maloney says at the minimum wage they can afford to pay, farmers are resigned to hiring foreign workers to do this dirty, physically demanding work.

THOMAS MALONEY: They are convinced most Americans do not want to do the kinds of jobs that they have available on their farms.

SOMMERSTEIN: But here's the thing. There is no legal agricultural visa for the year-round work of dairy farms. Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, says President Trump and Congress have to change that.

STEVE AMMERMAN: If it's strictly an enforcement-only, build the wall and deport all of our farm workers, then we're going to have serious problems when it comes to growing food and providing enough food to feed ourselves in this country.

SOMMERSTEIN: Everyone who drinks milk or eats yogurt or cheese should be worried, says Rebecca Fuentes, an advocate with the Workers' Center of Central New York. She says undocumented farm workers have always been vulnerable to deportation or wage theft or human trafficking. Now Trump's presidency is telling them they're the criminals.

REBECCA FUENTES: And that sends a message. We are saying, we want your labor, but we don't want you here. I mean what is going to happen?

SOMMERSTEIN: Many Trump supporters say the workers here illegally should be deported. As president-elect in December, Trump himself softened his tough talk when it came to agriculture.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: People are going to come through on worker permits to work the fields. We're going to have people - a lot of people are going to come through, but it's going to be done through a legal process.

SOMMERSTEIN: But so far, he's offered no details, leaving farmers and farm workers to square that President Trump with the one issuing executive orders this week. One of them makes it a priority to deport non-citizens who have defrauded a government agency, and that could include people who have fake working papers like the farm worker we met from Guatemala. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in upstate New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN FAHEY SONG, "SLIGO RIVER BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.
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