Companies are ‘Hiring’ Robots, Not U.S. Workers, in Wake of Immigration Crackdown

From the onset of his campaign, President Trump made draconian immigration restrictions a fundamental element of his political identity. And in the year since his election, he has made good on his anti-immigration promises. According to Reuters, the number of undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the U.S. decreased by 60 percent between February and May of 2017 compared to the same period the previous year, and arrests made by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) increased by 43 percent. But despite Trump’s constant boasts of “winning” with his anti-immigrant sentiments, his administration’s crackdown on immigration is having disastrous effects on an economic lynchpin of the U.S. – the multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry. [See As Trump Targets Immigrants, U.S. Farm Sector Looks to Automate, by Lisa Baertlein and P.J. Huffstutter, Reuters, 10.Nov.17.]

Since Trump’s election, farmers have been scrambling to rectify a labor shortage caused in part by the President’s relentless pursuit and prosecution of undocumented immigrants, who had previously comprised nearly 70 percent of the U.S. agricultural workforce. Further rattled by proposed legislation in Congress that would require all employers to cross reference the social security numbers of potential employees against a federal database to confirm legal status, farmers are turning to a solution often decried as a devastating blow to the labor industry: automation. Agricultural mechanization companies are springing up in the age of Trump as a way to offset the labor shortage spurred on by his anti-immigration sentiments, a problem which has been further compounded by a dwindling workforce that is aging overall.

“I get calls on a daily basis and it typically starts with ‘I don’t want to deal with this labor headache anymore,’” explained Steve Fried, a sales manager for robotic feeding and milking company Lely North America in an interview with Reuters. While convincing farmers to replace hardworking day laborers for automated agricultural systems used to be a challenge, he has seen business increase exponentially since Trump’s election. Automation industry insiders agree that, if Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigration continues, farm owners will have no choice but to increase their dependence on automation, lest their valuable crops be left to rot in the fields with nobody to pick them. “You’d be a fool to not have a plan that moves you that way,” noted Duff Bevill, who owns a vineyard management company in the heart of California wine country, to Reuters.

Feeling the pressure of the worsening labor shortage, some U.S. farms have already made major investments in automation. Christopher Ranch, who owns and operates a California based farm that is North America’s largest producer of fresh garlic, spent nearly $1 million this year on a robotic system that cleans and processes garlic bulbs, a task formerly performed by laborers. And Deere & Co, a major producer of farm machinery, recently announced its $305 million purchase of the weed killing robot maker, Blue River Technology.

And, it’s not just farmers who are seeing automation as a solution to a dearth of available workers. The U.S. tech industry has long maintained that there simply are not enough qualified U.S. workers to fill the positions, forcing the companies to employ H1B workers. There is a wealth of independent studies to support this argument. But, President Trump has repeatedly implied that reducing the number of H1B workers would lead to these positions being filled by U.S. workers. Instead, however, many tech companies are looking for new ways to automate systems and/or develop methods for the work to be performed from countries with large numbers of skilled workers, like India, rather than bringing those workers (and their tax dollars) to the United States. [See Indian Firms Face Shifting Landscape as Trump Cracks Down on Immigration, by Newley Purnell, The Wall Street Journal, 07.May.2017.]

There is no question that the U.S. government should always make the welfare of U.S. workers a chief priority. But, what the anti-immigration forces fail to understand is that a robust immigration system is one of the keys to having a strong and growing domestic economy. Imposing arbitrary roadblocks to brining in foreign talent may help some businesses become more efficient, but it will not solve the nation’s unemployment troubles.


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