The first Republican debate of the 2016 presidential season brought immigration reform once again to the main stage, with presidential candidates like Donald Trump advocating to “build a bigger fence” and “send them back.”

In the August debate, when asked what evidence he had for his immigration reform ideas, Trump responded: “Border patrol people that I deal with, that I talk to, they say this is what’s happening because our leaders are stupid, our politicians are stupid, and the Mexican government is much smarter…”

Like Trump, I have also been to the border. But unlike Trump, I conducted long-term anthropological fieldwork that included many conversations with Border Patrol agents. My research explored public perceptions of undocumented immigrants, in particular, how people perceive border crossers and the environmental impact of immigrants on the Arizona wilderness. In my research, I found that an immigration enforcement policy focused on chasing and catching people in the desert is both incredibly destructive to the fragile Sonoran Desert wilderness and incredibly dangerous for the people who cross.

More recently, I have been considering the ways in which mass deportation policy as advocated by Trump and many other presidential hopefuls is incredibly risky for our fragile food system and could have unforeseen social and economic consequences. Even if it were possible to build an impermeable barrier along the entire U.S.-Mexico border (which many studies have shown is not even remotely possible), or if we were able to deport all undocumented farm workers, this type of immigration reform might simply be bad policy for food systems.

More TBR 6
1. Som Castellano’s intro to TBR 6
2. Constance on economic concentration in ag
3. Deemer on social class and animal welfare
4. Saxton on farmworker injustice and health
5. Meiretto on immigration policy and food security
6. Wuerzer, Fry & Anderson on food access in Ada County
7.  Bruce on producing food for alternative food networks
8. Som Castellano on gender inequality in the local food movement


If we lose the ability to produce our own food, through either mass deportation or more restrictive immigration policy, we lose the chance to improve labor conditions for farm workers, to regulate chemical inputs and to monitor the quality and availability of the foods that sustain us. We would also lose the economic benefits of producing our own food.

In an agricultural state like Idaho, Trump-style immigration reform could be bad news for agribusiness, and bad news for the everyday consumer of food — in other words, all of us. A labor shortage could directly lead to a food shortage, or indirectly lead to economic decline as other countries fill the food production void.

Currently, the majority of Americans live with “high food security,” a USDA term signifying access to nutritious food on a regular basis. If one does not have regular access to nutritious food they have “low food security.” Food security is typically positively correlated with income in the U.S. — higher income households are better able to purchase food, can afford food with higher nutritional value (fruit, vegetables, meat, whole grain and dairy, as opposed to highly processed cheap food like ramen noodles and boxes of mac and cheese). In 2013, nearly 50 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including approximately 15.8 million children, according to Feeding America.

Food insecurity primarily affects low income people, including immigrants, who often do not have enough money to purchase healthy food or live in so-called food deserts. These are typically low-income urban areas where people lack access to grocery stores and have poor public transit or rural areas where big chain supermarkets don’t exist.

Thus, food insecurity is a way in which inequality manifests itself in the food system. Food insecurity is also related to immigration policy. First, one of the worst paradoxes of our current food system is that the people who harvest, pack and distribute our food are incredibly food insecure. Their wages are so low that they have significant difficulties providing adequate nutrition for their families. But further, proposed immigration reforms such as those promoted by Trump might actually make food insecurity worse, and not just for undocumented agricultural workers.


Just as a hypothetical exercise, let’s assume that Trump as president finds a way to block border crossings and deport all “illegals,” as he refers to the undocumented population. The result could be higher food insecurity for all Americans, not just low-income households.

The following facts and research findings about food are relevant to any immigration policy debate:
1. Immigrant populations are the primary source of agricultural labor. 

According to the United States Department of Labor, in the early 2000s, over half of U.S. farm workers were foreign-born, the vast majority from Mexico and Central America. In some specific agricultural sectors such as the dairy industry, the percentage of immigrant workers is even higher. In addition, 13 percent of the U.S. population is foreign born. When you factor in first generation foreign-born U.S. residents, approximately one quarter of the population holds immigrant status (Migration Policy Institute). Over 70 percent of the undocumented immigrant population migrated here from Mexico or Central America. Over 11 million undocumented people currently live in the U.S., raising their families, working, shopping and dreaming here in the U.S.

2.  Restrictive immigration policy or mass deportations would reduce food production. 

One recent study (Zahniser, et al, 2012) contrasted two hypothetical scenarios on the effect of changing immigration policy on agricultural outputs. The authors argue that because labor costs account for nearly 40 percent of production costs for fruits and vegetables, substantial change to immigration policy would have significant effects on the agricultural industry. They then conducted a computer simulation study with two different scenarios: 1) increasing the number of temporary farm workers and 2) decreasing the number of unauthorized workers in all economic sectors. Their research suggests that increasing the number of farm employees working under legal, temporary guest-worker programs would lead to an overall increase in agricultural outputs. On other hand, tighter immigration policy (i.e. less availability of what are now undocumented farm workers) would result in an overall decrease in agricultural output and overall economic decline as exports and outputs decline.

3. If immigrant agricultural workers can no longer enter or remain in the country, food prices will increase and food variety could decrease.

One risk of a dwindling agricultural labor force is that farmers will have incentives to switch to crops that can be harvested mechanically in lieu of crops that need human precision to pick (e.g., corn or soy rather than tomatoes or strawberries). It is well known that rates of undocumented immigration declined during the Great Recession. However, there was also a corresponding drop in available farm labor. Frank Gasperini, CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, says that farms have reported labor shortages growing worse since 2010, reaching as high as 50 percent at times (quoted in Cernansky at “Civil Eats”). Because the agricultural industry depends on a large supply of low-wage labor, the labor pinch will either drive prices up or force companies to look abroad for cheaper suppliers.

4. Keeping our agricultural workers here offers better opportunity for genuine reform of our food system.

Growing our food domestically, and maintaining the well-established migrant labor networks with which to do so, increases the likelihood that we will be able to tackle the big issues facing agriculture today: global climate change, the risks of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, genetically modified and engineered organisms, soil fertility, water consumption, etc. We have a wealth of scientists, activists and policy makers in the United States interested in making our food system sustainable, productive and just. If we reduce our capacity for agricultural production by eliminating our labor force we will have to import more food and this food will come from places where it is difficult to monitor environmental and human rights concerns. The American agriculture industry is riddled with inequalities and short-comings. But our best shot at building a better system, one that is built on fair wages, farm worker protection and sustainable production lies right here at home.


We see that there is a link between immigration policy and food security, and that low income Americans are more likely to experience the negative effects of draconian immigration policy. This link between immigration and food security raises an important question: what type of national immigration reform would be better for food security?

As a first step, we need to protect those who are most vulnerable to food insecurity, including undocumented farm workers and their families. Second, we need to recognize and fairly compensate current farm workers whose labor ensures a high level of food security for most Americans. Third, any immigration reform that is enacted must take into consideration the economic externalities of immigration policy. Any reform that would decrease available farm labor for fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and dairy products has the potential to dramatically affect food security for all Americans.

There are many alternative solutions to building a giant fence on the border. Options include expanding guest worker programs with proper worker protections in place (and reducing bureaucratic red tape so that agricultural businesses would be more likely to participate) and enacting a fair farm-labor minimum wage. Our current H2A guest worker program fails to provide sufficient labor power. Only 5 percent of agricultural companies currently participate in the guest worker program. There is too little incentive for big ag corporations as well as small farmers to jump through all the legal hoops when there is such a large supply of undocumented workers.

It is also worth investigating how a legalization program (or, amnesty) for farm workers might impact our food supply. Many quickly jump to the conclusion that immigration reform including normalization of status for undocumented workers would result in higher food prices as wages for farm workers increase. This might be true, but there are gains in this scenario for consumers and the food system itself. Michael Pollan argues that our food is “dishonestly priced” already, and many people would be willing to pay a bit more for food that is produced in a just and sustainable manner.

Further, one recent movement in farm worker justice counters the argument that prices would significantly increase. The Fair Food Program has resulted in higher wage for farm workers, and greater monitoring and enforcement of human rights abuses in Florida’s tomato fields. Higher wages and increased farm worker protections did not result in any immediate or significant increases in the cost of tomatoes. Further, even if food prices did increase due to higher wages, the economy may still benefit. If the undocumented population had higher wages and was no longer forced to live invisibly, their purchasing power would increase and in many ways stimulate the economy.

In a recent report, the Obama administration admitted that “currently, the agriculture industry is hampered by a broken immigration system that fails to support a predictable and stable workforce.” Immigration reform seems to be an insurmountable project for partisan-driven efforts. However, if we broaden the debate over immigration reform to include the issue of food security, perhaps we can come together to create a reasonable reform that does not irreparably exacerbate food insecurity.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.