COLUMBUS, Neb. — Some of the peppers you’ll see this summer at farmers markets and grocery stores got their start last week with Felipe de Jesus Aldais Ruiz and his pair of tweezers.
Aldais Ruiz is part of a crew of foreign workers on a Platte County family farm who perform the intensive hands-on labor that makes it possible for the farm to raise vegetables for sale across Nebraska and beyond. Their employer, Daniels Produce, is one of many Midlands agriculture businesses worried that workers might become harder to find, as President Donald Trump looks to crack down on illegal immigration and suspend refugee resettlement programs.
Aldais Ruiz, a 27-year-old Mexican, and the men he works alongside are in the country legally through a visa program for seasonal agricultural workers called H2-A.
Daniels farm manager Kelly Jackson has criticized the H2-A program for what she says is its cost and inefficiencies — reasons other farmers avoid the program in favor of undocumented workers.
But she worries a crackdown on illegal immigration could create a flood of employers applying to use the visa program and make it less likely her application will be processed on time. (Employers using the H2-A visas file the initial applications on behalf of their seasonal workers.) She’s also concerned by Trump’s recent comments about prioritizing visas for highly skilled workers, wondering if that might mean fewer farm laborers allowed into the country.
That wouldn’t be a bad thing, in some economists’ and voters’ view: They say that if fewer foreign workers come to the U.S. to do the unskilled labor of agricultural work, wages will rise and opportunities will open for American workers. That’s also the Trump administration’s view.
Still, Daniels and others in agriculture — from on-the-ground farms to industry lobby groups — said they still don’t have a good sense of how Trump’s immigration policy will shape up or how exactly it will affect them. Many say the policies could disrupt the supply of workers they can’t run their businesses without.
At Daniels, for example, growing kitchen-table produce is more labor-intensive than the type of work most other farms in the county undertake: planting commodity-type corn and soybeans with huge machines.
One morning this month the H2-A workers formed a pepper-planting assembly line: One filled trays with soil, another ran a small machine that placed one seed in each section of the tray and Aldais Ruiz used his tweezers to remove any doubled-up seeds, before he covered the seeds with more soil and soaked each tray in a tank of water.
The 80 or so workers Daniels hires each year are paid a government-mandated $13.79 an hour, plus housing and transportation, for a job that Daniels says it is hard-pressed to find local workers for, mainly because the work is seasonal, but also because it’s physically demanding — not just painstaking planting, but operating and repairing equipment, hoeing weeds, and picking and packing vegetables.
The nearest town, Monroe, has fewer than 300 residents, and the unemployment rate across Platte County, which includes Columbus, has been under 4 percent for most of the past four years.
If the government is going to tighten up immigration rules, Jackson said, “first you need to give us a pathway for workers.”
It’s a refrain heard throughout agribusiness, with industry leaders calling for expanded guest worker programs and a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized or temporary workers.
There’s support in farm country for Trump’s stance on deporting unauthorized workers. Almost three-fourths of respondents to the 2006 Nebraska Rural Poll said undocumented immigrants should be deported. Only a third said guest worker programs should be created to allow foreigners to work here without becoming citizens. The poll of about 2,500 people in rural areas is conducted annually by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; it last asked about the subject in 2006.
Across Nebraska and Iowa, it’s not just produce farmers who worry.
Meatpackers, dairy farmers and others in the states’ huge agriculture and food-processing industries rely on the labor of foreigners, immigrants and refugees. These workers slaughter and process cattle and hogs, milk cows, operate food factory equipment and more. They also spend at least some of their paychecks at local businesses.
Employers say they strive to hire only those authorized to work in the country. But they can’t always tell, they say: Federal law prohibits employers from rejecting documents that look reasonably authentic, or from asking immigrant workers for employment verification papers different from what they require of native-born workers.
Take Nebraska’s dairy farms, employing as many as 600 people — about one for every 100 milk cows, said Rod Johnson, executive director of the Nebraska State Dairy Association. Immigrant workers are essential to the operations of these Nebraska farms, which sell $300 million worth of milk a year, he said.
“We would like to think they’re all legal immigrants, but finding and keeping a full staff on hand is often a challenge,” Johnson said.
He said dairy operators are conscientious and inspect the paperwork they’re given, in some cases using the federal E-Verify program, but sometimes can’t be certain.
“What we do find is most of the immigrant workers that show up are very eager to work,” he said.
It’s a problem for the dairy industry nationwide. The National Milk Producers Federation this month called for a year-round guest-worker program, and for an amnesty or path-to-citizenship program that would allow unauthorized workers to earn the right to work legally in the U.S. Right now, guest agricultural workers can come to the U.S. only seasonally; Daniels farm workers return to their home countries every winter, but dairy farms need year-round help.
“As important as border security and interior law enforcement procedures are, such measures must be paired with a focus on current and future agricultural labor needs,” milk federation CEO Jim Mulhern wrote in a column.
Such needs could be ignored if the Trump administration focuses on “highly skilled” foreign workers, slowing the pipeline of lower-skilled workers that provide farm and meatpacking labor. Supporters say focusing on higher-skilled immigrant workers will put more Americans to work in labor-intensive industries.
Don Stull, a University of Kansas anthropology professor who has studied the meatpacking industry for decades, called it “folk mythology” that native U.S. workers wouldn’t take meatpacking jobs if the pay were raised. With today’s plants largely located in rural areas, jobs that start around $12 or $13 an hour are already “a whole lot better than what you can earn in other jobs in rural America,” such as fast-food wages.
Still, Jackson and others in the ag industry say there are simply not enough Americans in rural areas to staff ag operations — and those who do apply tend to be less reliable.
The Pew Research Center estimates that about 30,000 unauthorized immigrants work in Nebraska, an estimated 3.2 percent of Nebraska’s total labor force. They are heavily represented in a handful of industries, making up 18 percent of Nebraska’s construction workers; 9 percent of production workers, a group that includes food processing; and 5 percent of farm laborers, Pew said.
Foreign-born workers make up about a third of the nation’s butchers and other meat-processing workers, according to Pew. About half of those foreign-born workers are authorized to work.
A spokesman for meat processor Greater Omaha Packing said he didn’t know what the effect of Trump’s policies might be on the meatpacker, with about $1.8 billion in annual sales. But one thing’s for certain, he said: Foreign workers are essential.
“Greater Omaha Packing believes that we have essentially reached full employment in our area and need to avail ourselves of non-U.S. workers who are willing to fill the jobs we have available that would otherwise remain unfilled,” company attorney Mark Theisen said.
The beef processor has employees from at least 17 countries and said it uses E-Verify, a voluntary Department of Homeland Security program, to check documents.
Tyson Foods, with several plants in Nebraska and Iowa, said it does not expect Trump’s tough stance on illegal immigration to affect its operations. Tyson also uses E-Verify and participates in other government programs that aim to ensure immigrants are eligible to work.
New policies restricting refugees, though, might have an impact. Nebraska has resettled more refugees per capita than any other state, and many refugees have found jobs in meatpacking. Amid tighter immigration regulations post-9/11, packers have favored hiring refugees because they are authorized to work, are seen as hard workers and sometimes help recruit friends and family, Stull said.
Lutheran Family Services, the main agency assisting refugees in Nebraska, typically places 300 to 350 refugees a year in jobs here. Agency officials said about half of new refugees hired each year in Nebraska, especially those with limited English, work in meatpacking and other agriculture-related jobs. Lutheran Family Services has connected refugees with jobs at Tyson Foods, Cargill and other processors. Even refugees who first arrive in other states sometimes join friends and relatives in meatpacking jobs in Nebraska cities.
In a state with one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, and with a labor force that hasn’t seen much growth since the end of the Great Recession, employers are eager to hire refugees despite a language barrier, said Ryan Overfield, a Lutheran Family Services official.
“Employers are always looking for pipelines of people,” he said. “While communication is important, what they need most is someone who is motivated and dependable.”
Demand for meatpacking workers is only set to grow, with large new processing plants planned in the Midlands.
Lincoln Premium Poultry looks to hire 800 to 1,000 people for its planned Fremont plant, which will slaughter and package chicken for sale at Costco stores starting in 2018.
Pork producer Seaboard Triumph Foods will hire as many as 2,000 workers for two shifts at a new Sioux City, Iowa, pork processing plant; the first shift will start up this summer. Tyson is adding 350 jobs to its expanding Council Bluffs plant, where workers process cuts of beef and pork for retail sales.
Help-wanted ads describe the hard, physical labor. Tyson’s job postings mention repetitive movements, cold and damp air, long periods of standing, knife work, and the need to lift up to 50 or 75 pounds. Applicants have to be ready to work any shift and need a pair of steel-toed boots.
Why can’t dairy farmers and meatpackers just raise wages to attract more native U.S. workers?
Some might, but both industries compete in a worldwide commodities market and have limited ability to profitably increase prices to cover raises. Operators say they already pay competitive wages.
More likely than raising wages might be replacing workers with technology. Costco’s plant managers say they are cutting down on labor needs by investing in robotic de-boning equipment. Plainview, Nebraska, dairy Demerath Farms this month started using robotic milking systems, saying the shift let it expand its herd without hiring more people.
A third possibility is that producers will cut back on production, which might mean fewer jobs, said Eric Thompson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln economist.
A restricted flow of immigrants could hurt rural growth beyond agriculture, Thompson said. International migration is a major reason Nebraska has a growing population, especially in some rural counties that are home to meatpacking operations.
And it could stifle wage growth overall: The more people in an area, the higher the wages tend to be, he said.
“The economy will create more opportunities if there are more workers and if our cities and towns are larger,” he said.
The Center for Rural Affairs said some rural businesses, including construction companies, are wondering what’s ahead this summer, if migrant workers don’t show up as usual.
Some workers may be wary of even leaving their homes.
“In our rural areas, it’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” said Karina Perez, executive director at Centro Hispano, an immigration services agency in Columbus. The agency offers citizenship preparation classes and has seen increased interest among meatpacking workers in Schuyler and Madison. They may be authorized workers, she said, who now feel increased urgency to take the next step of becoming citizens.
At Daniels Produce, some H2-A workers are concerned about the political upheaval; others say they don’t worry about it.
H2-A worker Claudio Meijia, 39, has worked for Daniels for seven years and said the job is a blessing that has provided a better life for his two sons in Guatemala, helping to keep the lights on and pay for essentials like shoes. He watches the news and is worried the proposed policy changes might limit his ability to work in the U.S.
For his family, he said, “It would be like going backward.”
Aldais Ruiz — the pepper planter — has worked at Daniels seasonally since 2009, supporting two daughters and a son in Mexico. He said he doesn’t worry, but appreciates the ability to work legally, where his employer doesn’t take money from his check to cover rent or other costs.
Jackson, the farm manager, is hoping that the Trump administration will bring the immigration overhaul she’s been waiting for — something that will preserve the workers she has now and even allow more workers into the state. Her 500,000 pepper plants are depending on it.