How Trump's Immigration Plan Could Impact Food Prices

November 22nd 2016

Tricia Tongco

There are many reasons to be concerned about President-elect Donald Trump’s immigration plan, considering he has vowed to deport millions of immigrants, to build a giant wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and to implement a temporary ban on Muslim immigration. While less obvious, his policy proposals could also have a negative effect on American consumers, especially when it comes to food prices.

ATTN: interviewed experts in order to find out more about the possible potential impact of Trump's immigration plans on America's food supply and its cost.

Prices on certain food products could increase.

The tie between food prices and undocumented immigration is largely based on the fact that undocumented immigrants “account for a far higher share of the total workforce in specific jobs, notably farming (26 percent)," according to a 2015 Pew Research analysis.

"It depends on how he implements what he's talking about. But if [Trump's plan] makes migrant labor more difficult to come by, then it is likely to increase in prices for some crops and other agricultural products, such as dairy," David Just, a professor of behavioral economics and researcher at the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, told ATTN: in an interview.

…but the increase might be temporary.

In discussing the relationship between immigration and food prices, Just mentioned the 1942 executive order to create the Bracero Program, which brought millions of migrant farm workers from Mexico to the United States to pick crops. When the program was shut down in 1964, instead of spurring local labor, it drove automation, such as the tomato harvester, a machine developed to separate tomatoes from the tomato plant, according to Just.

In the past, it has been a challenge for farmers to replace these workers, because American workers don't apply for those jobs, according to John Laren, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia with expertise in international trade, economic development and the political economy. While farms figure out how to deal with their labor shortage, food prices could have "notable increases" for a short period of time, but could decrease with automation taking over jobs previously held by undocumented workers, according to Laren.

However, automation is not necessarily a positive outcome, "if Trump's plans get carried out, we might see a big wave of automation, as well as a wave of farm bankruptcy, and ramifications for local rural economy," added Laren.

Trump’s trade policy could also contribute to higher food prices.

"People think about trade as primarily about things being produced elsewhere and having them shipped here, like electronics," said Just. "But one of the original drivers of NAFTA was agricultural trade – we’re the largest agricultural exporter in the world which gives us a huge amount of power in these trade negotiations."

According to Just, protectionist trade policies like those proposed by Trump, who has spoken out against TPP and NAFTA, tend to raise the prices of crops that we import that American farmers also grow here, such as sugar and citrus fruits from Mexico. Under Trump's proposed trade plans, "[The United States] would essentially artificially raise the price of crops we import from Mexico in the U.S. to benefit our local farmers at the expense of Mexican farmers. That could certainly have significant impact on price of those crops, which would climb pretty high," said Just.

Going to restaurants could become more expensive.

“With a reasonable number of undocumented immigrants in the restaurant industry, we might see increase in price potentially, since restaurants might have to adjust for new labor cost," said Just.

In March, Amy McCarthy at Eater wrote about whether or not the restaurant industry would survive stricter immigration screenings:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 12.7 million employees in the U.S. restaurant workforce, 1.4 million are immigrants. But how many of those workers are undocumented?

The data on undocumented workers is nigh impossible to track due to the off-the-books nature of their employment, but a 2008 analysis from the Pew Hispanic Center found that at least 20 percent of all cooks in American restaurants were undocumented employees. For dishwashers, generally the lowest-paid employees in a restaurant, that proportion increases to nearly one-third.

Just added that there could also be a difference in the types of food offered at restaurants. "It might become harder to hire people who have expertise in certain ethnic foods, and recipes are going to change," he said.

Whether you agree with the denouncements of Trump’s immigration plan as racist and xenophobic, it’s quite likely that his immigration and trade proposals could make daily life a bit harder for all Americans.