Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said he’ll deport all 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. Lacking legal status, they fill many jobs – especially in farming. With Idaho solidly conservative, we wondered how those in agricultural areas reconciled their business interests with their politics.
Steve Millington is sitting in the back corner of the Twin Falls Perkins restaurant when we meet in the late morning. He’s the chairman of the Twin Falls County Republican Party and an avowed fan of breakfast; he has a plate of eggs, bacon and pancakes while we chat.
Millington says agriculture is the biggest sector of the Magic Valley’s economy. Along with farming, he cites education as being another big issue the area deals with. When asked about the conservative leanings of the region, he says, “The rural ideas and backgrounds create a policy or a program—an agenda where we are very, very strongly committed to care for ourselves. And that’s kind of a conservative-type virtue and benefit.”
Millington says conservative principles focus on the success of the individual. If independent people are industrious and get ahead in a community, that neighborhood or town will also rise, he says.
Like many, Millington supports Donald Trump for his outsider status and believes his background in the private sector as a businessman rather than being a career politician is the panacea the country needs.
Millington supports Trump’s call for stronger borders. “Yeah,” he says, “I think that Trump is probably going to force a lot of people to go back to their native land and apply for readmission to the United States.”
Along with Trump’s pledge almost from the outset of his campaign to build a wall along the Mexican border, mass deportations have also been a continuing theme of the Trump campaign.
Deporting the undocumented en masse would have a perilous effect on Idaho. A report from a bipartisan collection of business leaders out this summer estimates there are over 41,000 undocumented immigrants in the Gem State, and among them, a quarter work in agriculture.
While Millington believes many of those putting in long hours as laborers in the agriculture industry have green cards, he does think that those here illegally will have to go back to their country of origin before applying to come back to the U.S. The specifics of Trump’s immigration plan are unclear, and Millington says he hasn’t seen a detailed immigration plan. But, the Twin Falls Republican isn’t keen on a mass roundup.
“You know, to just say we’re going to send 10 million of them back across the border and they’re never coming back to the United States again, I think that’s a little harsh,” he says as he finishes his pancakes.
Over a hundred miles east in Pocatello, sitting in his office overlooking the city and the highway is Idaho Farm Bureau Federation spokesman John Thompson.
“It would have to be a massive, military type effort,” Thompson says of Trump’s proposed removal of all the nation’s undocumented people. “And then what? Pick and choose the worst of them?”
With his proximity to those in the industry, Thompson hasn’t heard much rumbling from folks in agriculture represented by his group in terms of worry about losing a sizeable part of their workforce.
“No, I don’t think that farmers and ranchers are that concerned with potential ramifications that might happen down the road because they’ve become accustomed to politicians telling them what they think they want to hear.”
With branches in most every county around Idaho, the Farm Bureau has a uniquely local flair. What works in one part of the state may not be the right solution for somewhere else. Thompson sees the same regionalism in feelings over Trumps immigration plan.
“Our dairy industry in Idaho depends on immigrant labor; cattle have to be milked every day,” Thompson points out.
He says it’s a different story with row crop farmers and the timber and cattle industries in the north of the state.
“There’s a lot less need and dependence on those foreign workers. And a lot of those people are very much in Donald Trump’s realm of thinking on that issue and they’re supportive of what he’s saying.”
Thompson says those at the Farm Bureau “think that workers who have been here and have established themselves, and have not had criminal issues, but have been good employees – we think that they should be put on a path towards citizenship.”
That position puts the Idaho Farm Bureau in agreement with the stance of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association.
We’d hoped to talk with dairy owners about how Trump’s immigration position might impact their operations. After reaching out to six Idaho dairies, none were willing to discuss the issue.
As for Thompson, he thinks Trump’s refrain of deporting 11 million undocumented people is just rhetoric to get votes. While it’s unclear whether or not Trump will make good on his bombast, from a policy standpoint, Thompson thinks it’s a bad idea.
“We don’t think that’s fiscally responsible or reasonable,” he says of expelling all the undocumented. “As far as policy goes, we don’t see a benefit or a reality to rounding all these people up and sending them back across the border.”
In spite of their tacit disagreement with Trump’s call for huge deportations, both Thompson and Millington, the Twin Falls Republican chair, think their constituents will back Trump for his promise of traditional values and pledge to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices.
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