A federal guest worker program could be part of a solution to the nation’s problem with illegal immigration, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told those attending a national agriculture convention in Albuquerque on Monday.
The secretary said many migrants from Central America would be coming here legally under such a program.
“Most of these folks involved in agriculture don’t have the desire to become a citizen,” said Perdue, who addressed the convention of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. “They just want to come and go to support their families. That’s why we think a legal guest worker program can be part of the solution of the illegal immigration problem that the president wants to deal with.”
Perdue also joined a chorus of Trump administration officials visiting New Mexico who urged Congress to pass the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement and defended President Donald Trump for calling out China for its unfair trade policies despite the harm of recent tariffs on agriculture producers.
Vice President Mike Pence, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross pushed for passing the replacement of the North American Free Trade Agreement in a visit to Artesia last month. Trump will also visit the state Monday when he speaks at a rally in Rio Rancho.
Perdue said he believed a secure, legal guest worker program would stop “the flow of many people coming in and trying to live in the shadows of the United States.”
He said he wanted to separate the need of a guest worker program in agriculture from the issue of illegal immigration. Perdue expressed a concern about an agricultural workforce shortage.
“The benefits are that it is absolutely needed,” the secretary said. “We know the demographics of our farm workforce out here. … The majority are foreign-born. There are jobs our domestic workers just don’t want any longer. People have trouble tracking domestic workers in the agriculture sector, pretty much no matter where you are in the country.”
Perdue said the administration is working with Guatemala to streamline the process on a temporary program already in place called the H-2A visa program, which also involves the Labor, Homeland Security and State departments. But he said he would like to see an expanded program that would make it easier for agricultural producers to find workers.
“We’ve got people living in southern Mexico who are living in poor economic conditions,” he said. “They want to provide for their families. They are good agriculture workers. Our country needs them. This would give them the economic freedom to do that.”
On other issues, Perdue called on Congress to pass the USMCA soon and said he believes it will pass. He said farmers are concerned about the replacement of NAFTA because the agriculture industry had benefited from the free trade agreement signed into law in the 1990s.
“I’m here to tell you that the USMCA is … chapter by chapter, line by line and verse by verse, a better deal than NAFTA,” the secretary said. He said dairy farmers, wheat farmers in the northern Plains and wine producers on the West Coast stand to benefit from the improvements. He also said it modernizes e-commerce issues that weren’t even thought about during the original NAFTA negotiations.
Perdue also said he was thankful Trump “had the courage” to call out China for its unfair trade practices. Perdue said the administration understood that recent tariffs were going to cause some pain in the agriculture industry. He said that’s why aid packages were put together to help soften the blow. He said he was directed by the president to authorize a $12 billion aid package to support the agriculture industry last year and another $16 billion this year “to help blunt some of the disruptions in your (agriculture producers’) trading patterns.”
“We know there are farmers in your community who’d rather have a good trading environment than receiving a government check,” Perdue said.