Listen to former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue give a speech these days and he’s quick to talk about his frequent road trips.
He’s traveled to 33 states in his first 10 months as secretary of agriculture. And as Perdue told it at an Agriculture Department-sponsored conference in Virginia on Thursday, farmers in every region of the country ask him about more or less the same three issues: regulations, trade and immigration.
The administration is on the same page as the farmers when it comes to whittling down regulations, he said. And Perdue indicated that President Donald Trump understands the key issues for ag when it comes to trade deals like NAFTA.
But immigration has been a far lonelier fight for Perdue.
Trump rose to prominence in 2016 with a platform that emphasized economic protectionism and deporting undocumented immigrants.
That in many respects diverges from what farmers rely on: seasonal, dependable labor. Given the long hours and difficult, physical labor needed during harvest time, many agriculture workers are foreigners – and are often undocumented.
Perdue on Thursday said he has been trying to sell his colleagues in the administration on a new class of visa that could meet the needs of the ag industry but isn’t as costly or cumbersome as the current H-2A system. (Georgia farmers have long complained about its shortcomings.)
But he also suggested he was having a hard time getting some of his White House cohorts on board.
“Agriculture is frankly a pretty unique area within the immigration (system). I’ve worked hard at the White House to persuade people who may not understand that,” Perdue told the conference crowd, which was packed with hundreds of ag stakeholders. “They still believe that there’s a domestic workforce out there who will farm and gather those crops every year, and I’ve invited those people to go out to the farms and fields with me but I haven’t had any takers yet.”
His comment drew a chuckle from the crowd, but it underscores the uphill climb Perdue and his allies face in this current political climate.
The Senate was unable to agree last week on a legal pathway for Dreamers, perhaps the most sympathetic group of immigrants in the U.S. And industry boosters like former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss have tried unsuccessfully for years to get Congress to approve a new guest worker program for agriculture – only to see the issue swept up in larger, far more contentious debates over illegal immigration.
Perdue said he’s hired a lawyer from the American Farm Bureau to help craft a program that addresses the needs of the ag industry while making sure criminals and other bad actors are removed.
“The people who come to America to work on farms and ranches are not taking jobs from Americans. You know that and I know that,” Perdue told the crowd. “These are not the people who are committing crimes… They just want an economic opportunity for a good job and to provide for their families.”
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