The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture said Thursday he hopes progress towards immigration reforms around farm labor could lead to a more comprehensive immigration policy fix. Sonny Perdue was speaking during a forum with Connecticut farmers.
Perdue, the former governor of Georgia, is on a listening tour, and touted his own upbringing as a farm kid to the audience assembled at Pride’s Corner Farm in Lebanon.
He listened to commentary on a range of issues, from food regulations, to inheritance tax, to insurance problems. Several questioners raised the precarious future of farm labor, threatened by the uncertainty over immigration policy as a whole.
Perdue sounded a hopeful note.
“Irrespective of maybe public comments, or what the national perspective is about the president and immigration, he understands the contribution that immigrant labor has made to the agricultural sector,” he said.
He outlined a new visa system that's in the works for agricultural businesses, so that they can recruit immigrant labor.
And pressed by his audience, he went even further.
“What we’re hoping, that agricultural guestworker program can maybe lead the way to comprehensive immigration reform," he said. "People I think are more willing to accept agricultural workers than maybe in other sectors, and we’re hoping to thread the needle there where it can be publicly palatable to do that.”
Some farmers in this audience said privately they’re already seeing fewer workers willing to come in from Mexico and Central America because of perceived discrimination, and it’s hitting their hiring needs.
“This is a huge issue. We need access to a good, reliable labor force," said East Canaan dairy farmer Ben Freund. "I want to see some surety, so we can plan. I mean if you don’t know if you’re going to have a labor supply, it makes it very difficult to do a labor intensive industry.”
Freund said he liked what he heard from Secretary Perdue, but he’ll wait to see if it translates into a more certain approach from the White House.