WASHINGTON, June 1, 2016 - Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are competing for the farm vote in California, but they’re taking completely different paths to win the support of producers in the country’s largest agricultural state.
Clinton has doubled down on immigration ahead of the June 7 primary, but for Trump, it’s all about the water. Both are issues that can make or break the state’s farmers who produce everything from garlic to milk.
Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is drawing a bright line between herself and Trump on immigration and it’s resonating with some of the state’s agricultural producers.
“He’s not only talking about ripping families apart, is he?” Clinton said at a recent campaign stop in Salinas, the heart of the largest fruit and vegetable farming area in the country. “He is talking about deporting more than one half of the 2.4 million farm workers who help feed our country.”
Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farm Cooperatives and a deputy agriculture secretary during the George W. Bush Administration, said she is talking about an issue that has farmers very concerned: losing their labor force and not being able to attract new workers.
Farmers have two primary needs when it comes to labor, Conner said. They need legislation that would protect undocumented farm workers from being deported and help them stay on the farms where they are needed. And they need a new guest-worker program that would allow farmers to more easily bring new help across the border.
The primary legal way in which farmers can employ non-U.S. citizens is the H-2A guest-worker visa program, but it’s virtually useless in the face of the massive number of workers that California’s farmers need, said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association.
“We have over 440,000 agricultural workers (in California),” Bedwell said. “If we took 70 percent of those and had to run them through an H-2A program, it wouldn’t work.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for a reaction to Clinton’s comments on immigration, but the presumptive GOP presidential nominee was also on the campaign trail in the Golden State last week. He made an appeal to farmers at a speech in Fresno on Friday.
“We’re going to solve your water problem,” Trump said, surrounded by a sea of printed green signs that read “Farmers for Trump.”
Conditions have improved in California this year, but the state has been in a drought for more than four years.
“You have a water problem that is so insane. It is so ridiculous where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea,” Trump continued. “And I just met with a lot of farmers who are great people and they’re saying, ‘We don’t understand it.’ ”
But California Republican Rep. David Valadao understands it very well. He’s been trying for more than a year to get legislation through Congress that would prevent river water from flowing into the ocean and divert it to farms. His efforts have been stymied by concerns in the Senate that his legislation would stop state and federal regulators from protecting the Delta smelt and the Chinook salmon under the Endangered Species Act.
The House gave Valadao’s latest bill, the Western Water and American Food Security Act, a new boost last Wednesday when it approved it as an amendment to the Senate’s Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016. The House then passed the entire bill, sending it to conference committee.
Clinton, who supports the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that would provide a way for undocumented workers to stay in the U.S., did not address California’s water shortages during her stop in Salinas.
Trump, who famously called Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers last year and said he would make Mexico pay to build a border wall, has also made a point of criticizing the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744), a comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate in 2013 with very strong support from the U.S. farm sector. The House never voted on the bill.
A passage on Trump’s website reads: “When politicians talk about ‘immigration reform’ they mean: amnesty, cheap labor and open borders. The Schumer-Rubio immigration bill was nothing more than a giveaway to the corporate patrons who run both parties.” Senators Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sponsored the legislation.
While Trump may be popular in rural California for other reasons, his repeated call for a massive border wall and the deportation of millions is not what many farm owners want to hear because of their labor needs.
“In terms of comprehensive immigration reform, clearly she is in line with the needs of production agriculture in California,” said Bedwell about Clinton. “This will be one of the many factors that are weighed as people try to make decisions on which way to go. But there’s no question, we’re getting in a tighter and tighter labor situation, particularly during harvest.”
Frank Muller, who grows tomatoes, peppers, almonds and walnuts on his California farm, said he isn’t yet supporting any candidate, but he and other producers are paying close attention and Clinton is saying the right things about immigration.
“Immigration should be a topic that’s front and center. I welcome any kind of realistic plan that either candidate is going to come forward with that works,” said Muller in an interview. “(Clinton’s) message is a more realistic message for what agriculture needs.”
Trying to deport the entire population of undocumented immigrants – estimated at more than 11 million people – is both unrealistic and “would be an ugly chapter in our history,” he said.
“We want these people to be legitimate, to be working here legally and fairly,” Muller said.
One of the biggest threats to the farm labor force is a proposed national E-Verify system to validate the status of workers. If the U.S. were to enact an E-Verify program before protections for undocumented farm workers are in place, the impact would be devastating on the agricultural economy, farm sector representatives said.
On E-verify, Trump’s policy is clear: “This simple measure will protect jobs for unemployed Americans.”
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