Food

How Trump's Immigration Policies Could Nearly Double the Price of Milk

If Trump's wall goes up, so will food prices.

Woman doing grocery shopping at the supermarket and reading food labels, nutrition and quality concept
Photo Credit: Stokkete/Shutterstock

President Trump's plan to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico is a bad idea for many reasons, from insulting a close trading partner to harming migrating wildlife to the fact that the wall won't actually improve current border defenses.

According to a 2009 study conducted by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit independent think tank, 97 percent of undocumented migrants are still able to make it into the United States, even with walls constructed at various points along the border. "There is no barrier known to man that will stop someone who has traveled hundreds of miles to feed his family," a border patrol agent told the Daily Beast. "He will go over, under, or around anything you put up."

But let's say Trump's wall does get built and it succeeds in preventing illegal immigration along the Mexican border. And say he also goes through with his plan to deport millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. One of the biggest impacts will be seen on America's farms, and consequently, Americans' dinner tables. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey, between 50 and 70 percent of farmworkers in the the nation are undocumented. Based on these estimates, between 1.2 million to 1.75 million farmworkers are undocumented. These workers pick the vast majority of produce grown in the United States.

What's more, legal residents and citizens don't want these jobs. A 2014 report commissioned by the nonprofit American Farm Bureau Federation found that U.S. citizens and legal residents are simply not interested in the farmworker positions that are ultimately filled by undocumented migrants.

"Given the limited skills required for farm work and the manual nature of the work, the majority of Americans apparently believe that they have 'outgrown' farm work as reflected in their unwillingness to take farm jobs even temporarily despite being unemployed," write the researchers, who identified three generic immigration reform alternatives: enforcement only (e.g., Trump's border wall); enforcement plus a pathway to legalization; and enforcement plus a pathway to legalization and a guest worker program for sectors with special labor needs, like agriculture. "While the generally low wages to paid farmworkers are consistent with the low-skill nature of the work, far more Americans are willing to accept even lower minimum wage jobs rather than work in agriculture."

"The United States already allows a significant amount of legal immigration from Mexico under the 'guest-worker' program—1.6 million entries by legal immigrants and 3.9 million by temporary workers from Mexico over the past 10 years—because farmers can’t find enough native-born Americans to pick crops," writes political commentator Robert Reich.

"There are growers out there screaming for labor," Carlos Castañeda, a California farm labor contractor, told Politico. "The people who are coming in are doing the work that not a single American would like to do."

So, if undocumented migrants if  are prevented from entering and taking on farm work, and Americans won't do those jobs, what will happen to the nation's farms that rely on undocumented laborers? The enforcement-only option, according to the AFBF report, "would have a significant disruptive impact on agriculture, leading to large enough losses in farm income by the end of a 5-year implementation and adaptation period to trigger a large scale restructuring of the sector, higher food prices and greater dependence on imported products."

"Without workers, farmers will have no choice but to watch their crops rot in the fields, creating shortages that will hit the grocery store," writes S.E. Smith in an article recently published by Truthout. Noting that "not all foods are created equal," Smith envisions the potential agricultural fallout from Trump's border wall:

Fruit prices will likely start to rise first, followed by vegetables, because both are very labor intensive. Next will be animal products, beginning with dairy and moving to meat and eggs. Staples like grains and beans, which can be harvested mechanically, will eventually follow. On average, food prices could rise by around six percent. Imported foods aren't as subject to these circumstances, but their prices may go up as well—especially as dwindling U.S. supply puts pressure on imports to make up the difference.

While a six percent increase is significant, the impact of Trump's border wall on milk prices is much greater. Economists at Texas A&M University conducted a study in 2015 commissioned by the National Milk Producers Federation. They found that if the nation's milk industry were to experience a 50 percent decrease in the current workforce, which includes around 80,000 immigrant laborers, milk prices would increase by 42.5 percent. The average price of a gallon of milk would rise from $2.72 to $3.90.

Simple enforcement of immigration laws by building a border wall would be the most disruptive reform action President Trump could take. If he must build his wall, he would be well advised also to establish a path to legalization for at least some of the undocumented workers already in the U.S., and also boost guest worker programs for the sectors of the economy that have become dependent on immigrant labor; namely, agriculture.

Every year, farmer Harold McClarty relies on thousands of undocumented laborers to pick peaches and plums on his California farm. He told Politico, "Trump is terrible for agriculture."

By preventing laborers from entering the country—and worse, deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are currently here—Trump will not only create problems for America's farmers and consumers, but will negatively impact public health, particularly among the poor. "These effects will hit low-income Americans especially hard," writes Smith. "Many already struggle to get enough fresh fruit and vegetables in their diets, and these foods could turn into pricey luxuries."

Another pricey luxury is Trump's border wall. Although he claims it would cost $12 billion, a Washington Post analysis puts the figure closer to $25 billion. As Reich flatly puts it, "There’s no reason for the wall." With Mexico adamantly refusing to pay for it, the burden would fall on American taxpayers. Americans would be forced to pay for Trump's bad idea—and would then be socked with higher food prices as a result.

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