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Rural America Braces for Labor Shortages After Immigration Crackdown

  • Bill Rodgers

At CareerLink, the state job agency in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, custodial worker and former welder Glenn Hendrickson was looking to change careers. Hendrickson was just beginning his search for a new line of work and he did not yet know what would pique his interest.

But he for sure wasn’t interested in farm work, except as a last resort.

“I’ve had a lot of friends who have had summer jobs, like when they were in high school, picking fruit but I doubt anyone would make a career out of it,” he said.

According to local farm sector employers, most workers are paid well above Pennsylvania’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Crew chiefs and foremen on some orchards earn close to $19 per hour. Yet few native-born Americans are willing to do this work, even if unemployed says Alan Dudley, administrator of the Gettysburg CareerLink office.

“The work is difficult, especially in the fields, and it’s not necessarily unskilled work," he said. "Orchard owners want skilled people to harvest apples so they get the best return on their crop.”

Custodial worker Glenn Hendrickson studies job openings at CareerLink, the PA employment office. He is not interested in farm work. (M. Kornely/VOA)
Custodial worker Glenn Hendrickson studies job openings at CareerLink, the PA employment office. He is not interested in farm work. (M. Kornely/VOA)

Adams County’s farms, orchards, and processing plants are where the jobs are. The so-called “fruit belt” of vast peach and apple orchards extends across the region’s rolling green hills, along with the packing and processing companies and other agricultural-related businesses.

Tourism, with the 3 million visitors drawn annually to the historic Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg, is the other main economic generator.

Adams County’s $580-million fruit industry depends heavily on immigrant labor, which is why the country may be facing an unintended consequence of the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Businesses in the agricultural-based economy are experiencing labor shortages, and orchard owners are bracing for the possibility of not having enough workers for the fall harvest.

Fleeing workforce

Last month, six Hispanic employees of a county fruit-packing company, which does not want to be identified, were picked up by local police and turned over to immigration agents, who sent them to a detention facility. These and other detentions have had a chilling effect on the county’s Hispanic residents, who make up 6.5 percent of the population of some 100,000 people.

Pro-immigration activists blame immigrant labor shortages on Trump administration rhetoric that has fueled fears among the immigrant community. (M. Kornely/VOA)
Pro-immigration activists blame immigrant labor shortages on Trump administration rhetoric that has fueled fears among the immigrant community. (M. Kornely/VOA)

Yet because of the immigration crackdown, workers are not showing up or in some instances, have fled. The local plant of Hillandale Farms, a major national egg producer and distributor, was desperately seeking to fill vacant jobs this summer, according to a company official, because much of its Hispanic work force had disappeared.

As the autumn harvest approaches, the demand for labor is accelerating, Dudley says, not just in the orchards but also in the fruit processing and other agriculture-related industries.

“So they’re coming into their busy hiring season right now. For instance, Knouse Foods just last week posted about eight new positions on our job search website.”

‘No roving checkpoints’

Adams County voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in last November’s presidential election.

At the Latimore Valley fair in June, which attracted several thousand people to watch antique car races, trucking company secretary Kim Sanders expressed strong support for President Trump’s policy of arresting and deporting illegal immigrants who have committed crimes.


But, echoing the views of others at the fair who were asked the same question, Sanders wants the law-abiding undocumented immigrants to be able to stay.

“I hate to say it but there are not enough American people to go out and work on a farm, or do planting and pick vegetables like they will,” she said.

Republican Congressman Scott Perry, whose district includes Adams County, has heard the concerns of orchard owners and other businesses in the fruit industry. Perry told VOA his message to them is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has assured him nothing has changed in its enforcement actions.

“There’s not like roving checkpoints,” he said. “They’re targeted enforcement.”

But ICE has changed its policies somewhat. Acting-ICE chief Tom Homan told reporters at the White House last month that “…no populations are off the table. So non-criminals, those who have got a court order from a judge that refuse to leave, we’re looking for.”

Under the last two years of the previous Obama administration, non-criminals were not a priority and were often let go if detained.

Republican Congressman Scott Perry’s district includes Adams County. He has heard the concerns of orchard owners but says the border would have to be secured before immigration reform. (M. Kornely/VOA)
Republican Congressman Scott Perry’s district includes Adams County. He has heard the concerns of orchard owners but says the border would have to be secured before immigration reform. (M. Kornely/VOA)

Growers such as Kay Hollabaugh are running out of patience. She met last month with Congressman Perry and local lawmakers to express her concerns about the future of the Adams County fruit belt if the immigrant labor force is driven out.

“Those people who are making the laws of our land, eat every day,” she said. “If we could simply stop producing food for a month - OK, no food, no food - I think perhaps that would make some bells go off.”

Ripening fruit

The Trump administration’s immigration policy has galvanized activists in Adams County to press for immigration reform and to lobby local lawmakers to vote against measures that would target immigrant communities.

Jenny Dumont, a Spanish professor at Gettysburg College who leads the immigration lobbying effort for a grassroots group called “Gettysburg Rising, blames the Trump administration’s rhetoric for creating unwarranted fears about the undocumented.

“It’s pretty well documented that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans,” Dumont said. “My sense is that people, if they’ve had contact with immigrants here, that they understand the contributions that they make, they’re able to see them as people not just the label immigrant, the other.”

But Congressman Perry said the border would have to be secured before Americans would agree to any immigration reform measure.

“If you just seal the border without doing some of these other reforms, we’re going to have problems from a business standpoint as well, and I think they get that but again there’s this mistrust," he said. "They want to see action not words,” the congressman said referring to border security.

These apples will be harvested later in the fall, but orchard owners worry whether they will have enough immigrant labor to pick the fruit. (M. Kornely/VOA)
These apples will be harvested later in the fall, but orchard owners worry whether they will have enough immigrant labor to pick the fruit. (M. Kornely/VOA)

As the push and pull over immigration policy plays out, farmers may get some relief as the federal government issues more visas for temporary agricultural workers, mainly from Mexico. The U.S. Labor Department has issued 20 percent more H-2A visas in 2017, compared to last year. Those visas are for seasonal agricultural work, such as harvesting berries, fruit or other crops.

But the visas require require farmers to demonstrate that no Americans will take the jobs they offer. In the meantime, the apple crop is ripening on the trees in Adams County. With harvesting about to begin in less than a month, orchard owners are not sure if enough workers will show up.

Kay Hollabaugh repeated what a top executive of a major food processor told her recently: “’If fruit goes, the Adams County economy falls and we’re out of business.’”

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