Oh Christmas Tree, Who Will Cut Thee? Trump's Visa Comments Put Farmers On 'High Alert'

Dec 8, 2016

Two of Donald Trump's promises have caught the attention of employers in the agriculture industry. First his promise to deport millions of immigrants in the country illegally, and second, his promise to investigate visa programs that bring foreign workers into the U.S.

Farmers have come to rely on foreign workers, some in the country legally, and some not. Getting rid of them could affect everything from tomatoes, to strawberries, even to North Carolina's $75 million Christmas tree industry.

Yes - you'd like to think Christmas trees are grown in the North Pole, but the truth is ever since the early 1900s, they've all come from commercial Christmas tree farms.

At one farm -- the Panoramic View Christmas tree farm in Boone, NC -- farm workers are hauling tightly-bound trees into the back of a tractor trailer. The farm's owners, Joey Clawson, bends over a clipboard, calculating shipments. This is one of the smaller farms in Boone, but of course, small is relative.

"Well this is the third tractor trailer today, plus a couple of big pickups and trailers," Clawson says, "So there was probably... ehh.. 3,000 more trees here this morning."

Clawson has been in business for about 26 years now, and he hopes to stay in business many years more, but he's got a problem. He says it's nearly impossible to find the workers he needs. Clawson's first choice would be to hire local American labor -- he offers $10-$14 an hour -- but even then, he can't get it, he says.

"It's cold. They're not gonna come out here and work in the cold," he says, "They're not gonna work 10 hours. They're not going to sit here and strain and struggle and work hard and sweat your rear end off."

So instead Clawson, like many Christmas tree farmers, relies on help from foreign, seasonal workers imported through the federal H2A visa program.

The workers are great, Clawson says, he pays them between $11-$12 an hour. They're all hard workers, mostly from Mexico. He's never had a problem with any of them. But the visa program, on the other hand, has proved challenging to work with. Getting the workers here requires months of paperwork filed with multiple departments, says Craig Regelbrugge, a lobbyist who works on behalf of the National Christmas Tree Industry.

"There are three government agencies that you're dealing with," he says, "and each is a different dance and there's some redundancy and there are tripwires and delays that happen at each stage."

And delays are common. The labor department frequently misses its statutory deadline for processing the visa. In one instance in 2015, the state department's computer system crashed, resulting in several weeks of setbacks.

Then, once workers are approved to enter the country, farmers have to find housing for the workers, and arrange travel to get them from their home countries to the U.S. Regelbrugge says it all adds up to a hefty bill and months of hassle.

So how does President-Elect Trump come into this? Well last month, he released a video outlining a plan for his first 100 days in office. This was the fifth point on the list:

"On immigration, I will direct the department of labor to investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker," Trump said in the video.

While he didn't specify which visa programs -- there are a few -- his statement sent red flags to some in the ag industry. They're concerned Trump wants to make it even more difficult to import visa workers under the misguided assumption that employers are denying the jobs to Americans. Regelbrugge, the lobbyist, played the clip for a recent gathering of ag employers.

"My comment to the group was 'high alert! high alert!'" Regelbrugge said, "We need to be very cautious about what this means."

Of course, any changes Trump would propose would need to get Congress' approval. And Clawson, who reluctantly voted for Trump in November, says he has faith the president-elect understands from a business perspective the need for foreign workers.

"He's got enough business experience," Clawson says, "He knows. He obviously knows."

But perhaps more worrisome is Trump's promise to deport millions of immigrants in the country illegally. The department of labor estimates about 50 percent of all crop-workers in the U.S. are without documents. It's agriculture's open secret.

If Trump took away half of the industry's workforce, the country would have to get used to a lot more farms requiring you to cut your own.