Trump Administration’s Visa Policies will Determine Christmas Tree Prices

“We’re going to start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again,” declared President-elect Donald J. Trump as snow pounded onto the ground outside.

It was a frigid December day in the heart of Michigan, a pivotal state that helped decide the presidential election just a month prior.

But despite the president-elect’s enthusiasm for the holidays, the agriculture industry has growing concerns that Trump’s proposed visa policies would put unnecessary duress upon the Christmas tree business.

Much of Trump’s campaign focused on tight migrant labor policies that would ostensibly protect the American worker’s job. In countless instances, Trump depicted Latino laborers as unfit for the agricultural jobs that he claimed should be going to American workers.

Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of the American Horticultural Association, is a registered lobbyist who has made individual contributions totaling $500 to both Democratic and Republican candidates since 2014.  He takes strong issue with Trump’s line of thinking.

“The minute you say, ‘they are rapists, they are murderers, they are here to do bad things,’ the minute you pit classes against each other, telling the man in the South, in the Midwest, whose job sucks, whose life isn’t going the way he wants it to, and you tell him to blame a Mexican, that’s abhorrent,” Regelbrugge said. “I don’t want to draw comparisons with Hitler, but the anti-immigrant movement has its roots in neo-Nazism and white nationalism. These people have found a voice in Trump.”

Trump’s nationalist tendencies exhibited on the campaign trail have moved past oratory. These ideas are also present in his goals for his first 100 days in office.

“I’m going to investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker,” the president-elect said in a video published online that outlines the plan for his first 100 days in the West Wing.

Many agricultural workers rely on an H-2A visa for documentation to work in seasonal agriculture in the United States. The Trump administration could apportion resources to expand employer checks to ensure that each laborer is fully documented in order to protect the American worker.

However, over the last fifty years, broad trends across American society have moved many citizens away from agricultural labor and into more skilled positions. In order to fill in this gap and maintain harvest yields, many farmers have had to turn to immigrant labor.

“Since the 1950s, our educational attainment has skyrocketed, population growth has centered around cities, people are having fewer children and big farms are growing,” Regelbrugge said. “As a result of all of these trends, and in order to keep up with production, U.S. workers have taken a relatively minor part of agricultural work for decades. It’s just a question of whether the migrants who have filled in the field are legal or not.”

If the Trump administration follows through with this pledge, some experts worry there may not be an American workforce to fill in for the resultant labor shortages. According to Regelbrugge, who lobbies on behalf of the National Christmas Tree Association, Trump’s proposed policy makes an assumption that a single dichotomy exists between the American and the migrant laborer.

“The person who thinks that either an American or a foreigner does the agricultural job is wrong. With each agricultural job, economists say two or three jobs are created in the surrounding industry,” Regelbrugge said. “When production moves out of the country, most of these upstream and downstream jobs leave with it. The idea of having either an American do a job or an immigrant is a fallacy.”

The late James S. Holt, who served as a professor of agriculture at Penn State University, researched the economic impacts of strict labor enforcement, and his findings largely back Regelbrugge’s assertions.

“We would be exporting about three times as many jobs of U.S. citizens and permanent residents as we would farm jobs filled by aliens if we restrict access to alien agricultural workers,” Holt said at a 2006 California Board of Food and Agriculture conference.

That is a chief issue for the incoming Trump administration. Without the workers from whom Trump has proposed stripping visa status, the harvest season may become an insurmountable challenge to many farmers across the agriculture industry. And this situation could be more intense for the Christmas tree farmers, whose harvest is condensed into a small period in November just before demand for their product skyrockets.

Myra Sawyer is one of these Christmas tree farmers. She and her husband, Tom, established the Tom Sawyer Christmas Tree Farm in Glenville, North Carolina, more than thirty years ago. Each holiday season, their farm churns out thousands of trees to families across America. But in order to accomplish that feat, the Sawyers have to rely on immigrant labor.

“During the harvest season, we hire some kids from the community, but they can only work part-time,” Sawyer said. “Overall, about two-thirds of our workers are migrants. This is hard work, and the Americans are lazy.”

Without this immigrant workforce, Sawyer would not be able to complete her harvest. Like a large majority of employers across the country, she made the important step of checking the documentation of her laborers to ensure that she was complying with U.S. labor law in hiring them. But many of these documents can be forged.

“There are a lot of unauthorized workers in the Christmas tree industry, even though the employer is not generally aware of that fact,” Regelbrugge said. “They know the statistics, that half the workforce or more lacks proper authorization, but they have been shown these fabricated documents.”

To protect migrant labor and farmers alike, the agriculture lobby is preparing the new members of the Trump administration in advance of the January inauguration with the knowledge necessary to make important policy decisions regarding labor law enforcement. Regelbrugge is working with broad agricultural interests to create policy memos for key officials to update them on the current labor situation. Moving forward, he and other lobbyists will facilitate conversations with these officials to see if there are concrete actions these agencies can take to help fix the current system.

But the actual picks for the incoming cabinet are alarming for the NCTA.

Marsha Gray, the Communications Director for the National Christmas Tree Association, said she is worried by many of the picks for the Trump administration, but is hopeful that the agriculture lobby will have a voice in the new government.

Despite the rhetoric of the Trump campaign, she said that the agriculture industry can capture the ear of conservative lawmakers.

“We need to see where things land and work with what we have. Traditionally, agriculture as a whole tends to have the ear of a conservative legislature,” said Gray, who formerly served as the executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. “Although our proposals may not line up with the oratory of the incoming administration, there is a good chance that, as an industry, we will have their ear. We will hopefully have a good chance to make substantive progress.”

The Trump administration gave voice to some hardline voices in migrant labor policy circles.

Kris Kobach, secretary of state of Kansas, serves as Trump’s immigration advisor and is the architect of many hostile labor laws in his home state. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.,—whom Trump has nominated for the attorney general post—has delivered many speeches advocating for hardline E-Verification policies that could heavily restrict the ability of farmers to hire migrants.

A spokesman for Sessions’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

The NCTA said it will maintain a line of deference until they see the complete blueprint for the Trump administration. No matter who is appointed, it will continue to work to secure the workforce farmers like Sawyer need to run their farms. But with each passing appointment, agriculture labor lobbyists react with dismay.

“These folks are crazy, and they will be in positions of influence,” Regelbrugge said. “It will probably get a lot uglier before it gets better.”

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