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Ag Secretary Says Trump Open to Allowing Immigrant Farm Workers To Stay In U.S.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks on Friday to the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City.
Credit Julie Denesha / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks on Friday to the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Friday said President Trump may be open to creating a way for some undocumented immigrant workers to stay in the U.S. and Perdue is already working on a “blueprint” of policy guidelines to offer the president.

Refusing to call it a pathway to citizenship, Perdue says he would like to find a solution that would allow workers in the ag industry to remain in the U.S. legally. That’s despite Trump’s campaign promises to step up deportations of undocumented immigrants.

Trump met with farmers this week and heard about the challenges they face keeping laborers for dairies or field work, Perdue says.

“He understands that there are long-term immigrants, sometimes undocumented immigrant laborers, out here on the farms, many of them that are doing a great job, contributing to the economy of the United States,” Perdue says. “That is not his focus nor will that be my focus.”

Perdue says he’s hired a labor lawyer to help design the program that can help keep undocumented workers here, but remove criminals, which is what Trump wants. Perdue says he’s hired an attorney away from the American Farm Bureau.

“I’m hoping she can provide the president and his administration a blueprint and a program of how we can separate and divide and understand who are the immigrants that are contributing to American society and contributing (to) putting … that food on the table and the fiber that we need for clothes, ” Perdue says.

The move is a turnaround for both Perdue and Trump, who said during the presidential campaign that he would deport almost all undocumented immigrants.

Many of the most powerful agriculture industry groups have pushed Washington to complete comprehensive reform to the immigration system that would allow for more legal foreign farmworkers. More than 70 percent of farm workers are foreign-born and half of those are in the U.S. illegally, according to the USDA.

More recently, Trump told a private meeting with TV anchors that he would consider immigration reform that would provide a legal pathway for people in the U.S. illegally. He has not made similar remarks publically since taking office.

Perdue said during his Senate confirmation hearings that he supported making it easier for dairy farmers to employ immigrants. Yet in 2006 as governor of Georgia, he instituted a major crackdown on illegal immigration, which resulted in a crisis for farmers who couldn’t find labor. 

Daniel M. Kowalski, an attorney and editor of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, said he’s surprised and pleased with the news.

“This new benefit for ag workers could be an entering wedge of reform, opening up relief for DACA (“Dreamer”) kids, their parents, refugees, and more,” Kowalski says. “It will take sustained pressure from families and small businesses to convince Trump and Congress that immigrants are a benefit, not a burden.”

If Perdue’s plan moves forward, Congress may have to pass a bill creating a new visa program or provide tweaks to the existing H-2A and H-2B visas, Kowalski says. Or perhaps the Trump Administration would direct the Department of Homeland Security to order Immigration and Customs Enforcement to exercise prosecutorial discretion to resist deporting all of the people they arrest, he says.

Perdue wouldn’t offer the specifics of his plan and said it’s in its early stages.

“I’m trying to describe the heart of the president and my heart regarding how we treat people, some people here who are undocumented who have been working in the United States for a number of years,” Perdue says. “Those people are different than the criminal people, illegal criminals preying on the population of the United States of America.”

Copyright 2020 Harvest Public Media. To see more, visit .

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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