Donald Trump’s War on Food

Why the president’s immigration policy may stand between you and your favorite burger.

President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration policy—particularly to legal immigration–stands in between you and your favorite burger.

Last year, the administration announced the United States would resettle a maximum of 18,000 refugees over the course of fiscal year 2020, the lowest limit since the program started four decades ago and a 40 percent drop from 2019. Then, in January, the administration expanded the travel ban to suspend immigrant visas for people from Eritrea, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, and Nigeria, and to restrict diversity visas for citizens of Sudan and Tanzania.

These actions—coupled with myriad other moves to build a “virtual wall” that keeps newcomers out of the country — will intensify an already significant drop in legal immigration: 940,877 people obtained lawful permanent residence in fiscal year 2018, compared to 1,063,280 in fiscal year 2016, an 11.5 percent decrease.

So, what do hamburgers have to do with this? A lot, it turns out.

More often than not, immigrants are the conduit between the lettuce in the field, the cow in the pasture, and that burger on your plate. They are crucial contributors on farms in California and Idaho, and in beef-processing factories in Nebraska. In many cases, they’re the ones picking, processing, and preparing your food, and ultimately delivering it to your table. In fact, almost three-quarters of farmworkers are foreign-born. Half of the workers on dairy farms are immigrants—another important consideration if you like cheese on your patty.

Earlier this year, I was in Storm Lake, Iowa—population 13,000. I had the opportunity to sit with staff at the Tyson plant that processes pigs for markets around the world. One of the workers, Abel Saengchanpheng, came there as a Laotian refugee and was born in a camp in Thailand. Along with his Hispanic, Asian, African, and white co-workers, Abel makes Storm Lake—a town where 29 percent of residents are foreign-born—a stronger community. Downtown Storm Lake thrives because of Latino-owned stores like the Better Day Café and, as a result, local leadership addresses the best of all problems facing rural America: growth.  If you take immigrants and their families out of the equation, the town starts to suffer.

Case in point: Look at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Perry, Iowa—population 7,500. Once a thriving workplace, it might not meet demand now due to a shortage of available workers, according to local press reports. Refugees from Eritrea and Myanmar—two countries included in Trump’s new entry ban—are frequent hires at Tyson’s Perry plant. Of the 1,368 workers Tyson employs there, 800 arrived as refugees.

In essence, we see a tale of two towns in rural America, putting food on our tables: One is thriving because of a diversity of foreign-born labor. The other town is worried about its future because its pipeline of foreign-born talent has been shut down by the Trump administration.

In Iowa alone, refugee- and immigrant-owned businesses contribute $4 billion to the state every year, and immigrant households pay nearly $522 million in local and state taxes. These hardworking people in the meatpacking, agricultural, manufacturing, and other industries stem the tide of population loss, keeping communities afloat, and add to the cultural vitality of Iowa and other states.

That matters right now, as cities attract more and more people from the heartland—hastening a demographic crisis in rural America. For instance, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested dozens of undocumented immigrants in 2018, companies are struggling to hire. Two states away, in Indiana, immigrants are responsible for 25 percent of the state’s population growth since 2000.

In short, the strength and dynamism that immigrants and refugees bring to rural America—and our agricultural sector—is at risk.

Which brings us back to your hamburger.

A new MSNBC Show, “What’s Eating America”—executive produced by chef and humanitarian José Andrés—explores “immigration, the food industry, and more by examining the stories of people working to raise, process, and harvest what we eat.” As Andrés explains, many Americans, including our president, don’t seem to understand that immigrants and refugees are integral to our food system.

Every time Trump takes action to limit immigration or makes a derogatory comment about immigrants, farm owners and CEOs at food processing plants hear the message. They prepare for a shrinking workforce, lowered production targets, and slimmer profits.

The reality, however, is what President Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, recently admitted: Our country is  “desperate” for immigrants to “fuel economic growth.” When it comes to the food we eat, immigrants aren’t a part of the equation in the United States—they are the equation.

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Ali Noorani

Ali Noorani is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, host of the Only In America podcast, and author of There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration.