The fears weigh on Mike McMahon: If one of his undocumented workers gets a traffic ticket, it could prompt an immigration audit of his entire farm. If another gets detained by immigration agents at a roadside checkpoint or in a supermarket parking lot, the rest may flee. And if his undocumented workforce disappears overnight, there is no one to replace them.
“It keeps me up at night,” said McMahon, who owns a dairy farm south of Syracuse. “There are people out there who just say, ‘Send them all back and build a wall.’ But they would be facing empty shelves in the grocery store if that were to happen.”
It has long been an open secret in upstate New York that the dairy industry has been able to survive only by relying on undocumented immigrants for its workforce. Now, this region has become a national focal point in the debate over President Donald Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants and their role in agriculture.
The tensions have escalated to such a degree over the last year that Gov. Andrew Cuomo described federal agents as reckless, accusing Immigration and Customs Enforcement of violating the rights of farmers in pursuing undocumented immigrants.
Cuomo was responding to a high-profile raid on a dairy farm, during which a farmer was briefly handcuffed after protesting that ICE agents were mistreating one of his workers. The farmer claimed ICE did not have a warrant to enter his farm.
Cuomo is a Democrat, but Republicans who represent upstate New York in Congress have also come to the defense of the farmers.
The pressures here reflect broader challenges facing farmers across the country who rely on undocumented workers. The farmers are struggling with a shrinking labor pool as fewer migrants cross illegally into the country and migrants who are long-term residents become too old for field work.
This year the labor shortage has been compounded by Trump’s trade war and extreme weather, forcing some small farmers to switch to higher-value crops, to reduce their acreage and to consider selling their farms.
If anything, the situation in upstate New York is more difficult.
Smaller dairy farmers here have been some of the hardest hit by tougher immigration enforcement because their workers are subject to scrutiny from both ICE and the border patrol, which is allowed to operate within 100 miles of the border — in this case, with Canada.
Agriculture contributes an estimated $37 billion to New York’s economy and is responsible for nearly 200,000 jobs.
“We are seeing that the immigration enforcement is having a tremendous enforcement impact on farmworkers, on farms,” said Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworker Program. “For many farmers, there’s no alternative labor force.”
To search private property like a farm, ICE needs a warrant that shows reason to believe a particular undocumented immigrant is living or working there. But if undocumented workers leave the farm to go to a grocery store, they can be approached by ICE agents in a parking lot or a roadside checkpoint, detained and deported.
Advocates for undocumented immigrants said ICE agents target immigrants indiscriminately in these public spaces. But ICE disputes those claims.
“ICE continues to focus its limited resources first and foremost on those who pose the greatest threat to public safety,” said an ICE spokesman, Khaalid Walls. “ICE only conducts targeted immigration enforcement. The agency does not conduct raids or sweeps that target aliens indiscriminately.”
Supporters of stricter immigration policies said they were sympathetic to the plight of small farms. But they pointed out that the farms’ reliance on inexpensive, undocumented labor would handicap U.S. agriculture in the long term.
They argue that while immigration crackdowns could force farms to consolidate and mechanize and may be hard for individual farmers, it would make the industry more competitive globally.
“The more productive policy response would be subsidized loans to invest in machinery for small-scale farmers, rather than revising how we import foreign workers and perpetuating the labor-intensive old-fashioned way of doing business,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors restricting immigration.
Dairy farmers face particular challenges because without American workers, they have no alternative to migrant labor. The government program that brings in legal temporary workers does so only for seasonal workers and dairy farming is a year-round activity.
In Washington, lawmakers representing dairy-heavy districts have tried to reform the legal foreign workers program to include year-round dairy workers.
But so far, efforts have fallen short. These lawmakers are caught between staunch conservatives who consider any reprieve a form of amnesty and Democrats who want more comprehensive immigration reform, which would also address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, and immigrants with Temporary Protected Status.
Over the last 50 years, U.S. farms have relied on two labor forces: migrants who settled in the country during the migration wave of the 1960s and ‘70s; and those who stayed temporarily, illegally crossing the border for each harvest season. But today, permanent migrants who settled are reaching their 60s, fewer and fewer seasonal migrants are coming to the United States, and enforcement operations are driving the few migrants left out of the state.