Perdue defends foreign farm workers at Outlook Forum
In his first speech to the Agriculture Department’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that American agriculture faces three challenges — regulation, trade and a legal workforce — but devoted his most surprising comments to a defense of foreign farm workers.
He did not speak at last year’s forum, USDA’s prestigious annual conference that attracts people from all over the world, because he had not yet been confirmed.
Perdue acknowledged that he has worked hard to convey to White House staff the reality of the need for farm workers. Perdue said there are people working in the White House who believe there are domestic workers willing to do the jobs of farm workers, and said he has invited them to visit farms, but that so far no one has taken him up on his offer.
While President Donald Trump has criticized Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers and as people who take Americans’ jobs, Perdue said immigrant farm workers are not taking jobs from Americans, committing crimes, or “putting a burden” on the U.S. criminal justice or welfare systems.
“The current H-2A is cumbersome, convoluted and does not work for many producers,” Perdue said, adding that the system for bringing in farm workers has become “bound up and bundled up in regulations.”
“We could have a better system,” he said.
Perdue did not mention any details of what he has in mind or discuss any congressional proposals, but said “Agriculture is caught in the crossfire” of the immigration debate.
There are people who would like to come to the United States on a temporary basis to work, not to become citizens, he added.
Perdue also noted that he “poached” Kristi Boswell, former American Farm Bureau Federation immigration specialist, hiring her to work on the immigration issue “full time.”
On regulation, Perdue repeated Trump’s frequent statements that he promised to get rid of two regulations for each one imposed, but that in reality the administration has gotten rid of 22 regulations for each new one.
Perdue acknowledged that before he took the job of secretary he had often complained about regulations, but said it is now time to step up and reduce them. He encouraged the attendees to send USDA information on regulations that should be ended, and said that USDA has gotten 300 such recommendations so far. But he also noted that many of those suggestions have focused on regulations imposed by other agencies and said USDA forwards those to those agencies.
Perdue emphasized that the Trump administration withdrew the Obama era regulation known as the Waters of the United States rule.
A rainstorm may “create a mud puddle,” but that is not a “water of the United States,” he said.
Perdue acknowledged that farm incomes are down, but said the answer is to sell overseas to the growing middle class, particularly in Asia. He said he recognizes there is trade “anxiety,” particularly about the North American Free Trade Agreement. But he said he is confident Trump is “a very shrewd negotiator” and “wants the best for the American people.” He noted that Trump often “keeps congress off balance.”
Perdue did not mention the U.S. conflict with Canada over dairy policy that is the biggest agricultural sticking point in the NAFTA negotiations.
He pointed out that Agriculture Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Ted McKinney was not at the forum because he is traveling in India where there are “protectionist provisions.”
Perdue noted that he has traveled to 33 states since taking office and said those visits with farmers had helped develop the administration’s farm bill principles. But he emphasized that it is the responsibility of congress to write a farm bill that continues the farm safety net. He noted that the emergency disaster bill helped the cotton and dairy industries and said he expects more help for the dairy producers in the farm bill.
The aid to farmers hurt by hurricanes and wildfires in the emergency disaster bill was “for extremes,” but he said, “but we cannot count on that year in and year out.” That is why the farm bill has to maintain the farm safety net, he said.
Perdue did not mention his controversial proposal to start a pilot project shifting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program with boxes of food sent to low income people.