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Trump should tour Central Valley farm fields — and leave his immigration agents at home

Trump should tour Central Valley farm fields — and leave his immigration agents at home
A farmworker culls rows of lettuce in Salinas, Calif. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Hard-liners who want to deport all immigrants living here illegally should visit a California farm at harvest. In fact, that's especially a good idea for President Trump.

The president might learn a thing or two about undocumented farmworkers and the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform by watching, for example, peach picking on a sweltering summer day in the San Joaquin Valley.

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A crop harvest can't be postponed until there's a labor force large enough to handle the job. When it's ripe, the crop must be gathered or it rots.

We all know that, but mostly in an abstract way. We don't stand in the boots of a farmer worrying at dawn whether enough field hands will show. They're mostly undocumented and often leery of possible raids by federal immigration agents.

"I've seen in the Salinas Valley lots of lettuce left in the field because of a lack of work force," says Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

"There's definitely a worker shortage," adds Johansson, who farms olives and citrus in Butte County. "It's become more difficult over the last 10 years."

That's true for several reasons, not just Trump's raids.

Illegal immigration has slowed, not only during the Trump presidency but also under Barack Obama's. There's an attrition of the labor pool, says Tom Nassif, president and chief executive of the Western Growers Assn.

The Mexican economy has been improving and "Mexico itself is importing farmworkers from Central America," Nassif says. Plus, farmworker parents hold higher ambitions for their children and increasing numbers are going to college — many of them the so-called Dreamers.

Moreover, the California economy has greatly improved and there are jobs in construction and restaurants that beat farm work.

"It's getting worse every day," Nassif says. "We're seeing shortages of 25% to 40%, depending on the crops and times of year." Fruit trees and row crops that rely heavily on hand labor are particularly vulnerable, he says.

Farmers should pay more, critics charge. But they're paying $15 to $18 an hour, Johansson says. And citizens can't be lured at any wage.

Trump is making California agriculture nervous because of his roundups of undocumented immigrants and newly imposed tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. There's concern about retaliation by foreign countries against California farm products.

Trump was down on the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego on Tuesday ogling huge prototypes of a $25-billion wall designed to keep out immigrants. But in California, farmers are trying to get more of these workers into the country and keep them here.

Ironically, Trump's immigration and tariff policies are creating jitters especially in the California farm belt, which gave the Republican his strongest support in this blue state that voted lopsidedly for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Ten Central Valley agriculture counties sided with Trump over Clinton.

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"They're culturally Republican, more conservative," veteran GOP consultant Rob Stutzman says of farm belt voters. "They view the ruling and elite classes in coastal cities differently than they see themselves. It's a different, harder life in the valley."

There are distant danger signs for Republicans, however, even in the farm belt. Among new voter registrations, only 22% are Republican and 29% are Democrats, according to Paul Mitchell, who heads Political Data Inc. More important, 40% are independent, shunning both parties, and 43% are Latino.

Economics professor Daniel Sumner, who heads the UC Davis Agriculture Issues Center, says the biggest immediate problem for California farmers with Trump's immigration and tariff policies is uncertainty.

"The rhetoric makes people nervous," Sumner says. "Workers may leave California for places they feel are safer, like in the Midwest."

The 25% tariff on imported steel and 10% on aluminum not only may spur foreign retaliation against California's $25 billion worth of annual agriculture exports, but will probably raise prices on farm machinery, Sumner adds.

"A tomato harvester is made of steel," the agriculture economist says. "You may have an old one wrapped in bailing wire and are planning to buy a new one that costs $300,000. Then you find out it's going to be $320,000. That means one piece of expensive equipment doesn't get sold. And the whole economy operates less efficiently."

Trump has exempted Canada and Mexico from the steel tariffs, at least initially. Sumner wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't soften the tariffs further when countries start to retaliate.

"Almost never does a president say, 'Gee, I was wrong. You win. You're tougher than I am,'" he says. (And certainly not Trump.) "What they do say is, 'We achieved our objective.' And that may well happen here."

But even if Trump ultimately backs down, California agriculture could be hurt in the meantime.

"These things have consequences," Sumner says. "People start buying from somewhere else. That can happen just with rhetoric, and that's the worry."

California agriculture is looking for legislation that will provide legal documentation for current workers and "bring them out of the shadows," Johansson says.

But that's seen as amnesty by many hard-liners and is politically toxic.

"I see it as common decency," Nassif says. "There's no question the vast majority of field workers are falsely documented. I'd say of 500,000 farmworkers in the state, 70% are falsely documented."

Falsely documented is a polite word for phony papers. Give them real ones.

Trump should book an August educational tour of dusty Central Valley farm fields. And leave his immigration agents at home.

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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