Politics & Government

Perdue trying to help farms get foreign workers in Kushner immigration effort

Farmworkers pick paper trays of dried raisins off the ground near Fresno, California and heap them onto a trailer in the final step of raisin harvest in fall 2013.
Farmworkers pick paper trays of dried raisins off the ground near Fresno, California and heap them onto a trailer in the final step of raisin harvest in fall 2013. AP

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is wading into legal immigration efforts led by Jared Kushner by dispatching a former farm lobbyist to work with the agribusiness community on how to meet their need for foreign workers without compromising the ideals of the administration.

The plan is raising hopes in agriculture communities where farmers say they have been desperate for workers, while also increasing concern among pro-enforcement immigration groups that have raised questions about whether it is in line with President Donald Trump’s “Hire American” policies.

“Every time meaningful employment and wage protections for American workers are finally within reach as part of an immigration reform proposal, agriculture lobbyists swoop in to gut the enforcement provisions or demand greater access to cheap foreign labor,” RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told McClatchy. “This has gone on for three decades.”

The crisis on the border has largely overshadowed the immigration efforts of Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law and an adviser. Earlier this month, amid the leadership shake-up at the Department of Homeland Security, Trump picked senior aide Stephen Miller to lead on immigration and asked Kushner for different ideas on legal immigration that could be incorporated into a broader enforcement policy.

But Kushner has continued to meet with business groups, including as recently as last week, raising hopes that he will find a way to meet labor demands in the tech and manufacturing sectors.

Late last year, Kushner helped kick off a fresh discussion on immigration that reflected a new paradigm in the White House. It appeared to be a shift away from the priorities of 2017, Trump’s first year in office, that sought to prevent the influx of foreign workers who could displace American workers in favor of a new approach preferred by more traditional Republicans, particularly those close to the corporate sector who are desperate to attract more foreign workers to fill U.S. factories and tech hubs.

Trump won the GOP nomination and the presidency in 2016 by campaigning on a promise to crack down on immigration, build a border wall and end an Obama-era program that offered the so-called Dreamers temporary, renewable work permits.

Kushner said Tuesday that he has put together “a very detailed proposal” that encompasses three major themes: improving border security, moving toward a so-called merit-based system and maintaining “our country’s humanitarian values.”

“I do believe that the president’s position on immigration has been maybe defined by his opponents by what he’s against as opposed to what he’s for,” Kushner said at the TIME 100 Summit.

Perdue has sent one of his senior aides, Kristi Boswell, a former lobbyist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, to work with Kushner’s immigration team.

Earlier this month, Boswell encouraged California Farm Bureau Federation officials advocating on Capitol Hill and at the White House to speak out on needed improvements for a more flexible and streamlined program for farmers and ranchers known as H-2A. That program allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to fill temporary agriculture jobs in the United States.

The White House and the Agriculture Department did not respond to inquiries about the White House and Perdue efforts to help farmers find more foreign workers.

Tom Orvis, a spokesman for the Stanislaus Farm Bureau in California, told McClatchy he’s encouraged by any movement on the issue, which the industry has been trying to fix for over a decade.

“This continues to be the political hot potato,” Orvis said. “Neither party has been able to get it done.”

The California Farm Bureau said it was reluctant to speculate on a plan that leaders had not seen, but the bureau’s federal policy manager, Josh Rolph, told McClatchy that they were pleased with the “administration’s attention to farm employee shortages and look forward to seeing what the administration produces.”

Perdue addressed the issue earlier this month with the House and previously with the Senate and called it one of Trump’s top priorities.

“The president understands we need a legal agricultural workforce,” Perdue told the Senate Agriculture Committee. “It’s probably the number two issue I hear behind trade everywhere I go and I look forward to working with both sides and the administration to achieve a comprehensive immigration bill that satisfies the need for agricultural workers. We know that the majority of our agricultural workers are foreign-born now and some legal, some illegal, from an immigration perspective and we need the help.”

Enforcement advocates raised concerns about the administration objectives and questioned whether these are more goals that the administration is pushing or if it’s really pushing actual legislation

“Is it really worth them going to all this trouble and building all these expectations for something that is just supposed to be talking points going into an election? That doesn’t make sense to me,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, who speaks regularly with the administration. “Some of the folks who are involved in this are really planning for this to grow legs. And that is why we’re seeing all the lobbyist for the business interests and the growers and everyone starting to mobilize because they think it will mobilize. This is no longer what the president stands for. This is turning into an actual initiative. ”

Hauman warned the White House from pursuing what he described as “an agricultural mass labor subsidy” that is doomed to fail.

“Secretary Perdue serves at the pleasure of President Trump and should be a champion of his immigration agenda,” Hauman said. “He wasn’t nominated to be an in-house voice for employers who take advantage of low-wage illegal workers and seek to block the very reforms his boss ran on.”

Farm groups say the shortage of workers is a serious issue for multiple agriculture industries, but it might cause the most difficulty in the dairy industry where farmers seek a more stable, less rotational, workforce.

“Secretary Perdue has been more than receptive and he knows the industry,” said Will Rodger, spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “If he’s working on something we would take that as a very good sign.”

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.