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Minnesota Farms Depend on Immigrant Workers and Foreign Students

Jim Riddle is the owner of Blue Fruit Farm in Winona, Minnesota, where he raises organic perennial fruits on a 5-acre plot of land. Riddle and his wife keep the operation small so they can get by on their own labor and that of crew leaders and a handful of local students and teachers who pitch in during the summer. But for their friends and colleagues with larger operations, an adequate American workforce simply doesn’t exist.

When people aren’t sure if they’ll be able to get work permits or green cards, or they’re even worrying about being deported, that makes everyone’s lives harder, for them and their employers.

“If you get much bigger than our scale, or if you run a big dairy farm, you can’t find laborers,” Riddle says. “A friend of mine has a 120-acre organic produce operation, and he employs a large number of Hispanic workers who he’s developed relationships with over many years, but now their conversations are filled with uncertainty and fear. When people aren’t sure if they’ll be able to get work permits or green cards, or they’re even worrying about being deported, that makes everyone’s lives harder, for them and their employers.”

Riddle adds that while Minnesota has come to lean on immigrant labor, it’s also benefitted from international students who attend college in the United States and contribute fresh ideas to agriculture programs. “Another colleague of mine typically has a pool of foreign students from the University of Minnesota, studying and working each summer on the family’s organic apple farm,” Riddle says. “But in the wake of this new administration, people feel discouraged from coming here. This summer, that farm is expecting just one woman from France. And if we start discouraging students from coming here, well, that’s a much bigger problem for the U.S. and its economy.”

Riddle would like to see a “straightforward work permit process,” with less red tape for seasonal workers. “Yes, sufficient background checks are important, but let’s make sure there is minimal bureaucracy and remove the fear from the process,” he says. On a larger scale, he’d like to see a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants who have proven their value to the community. “It would just take them out of the shadows and allow us to better tax them and further benefit from them being here,” he says. In his own congressional district, along Minnesota’s southern border, immigrant residents already pay nearly $283 million in taxes each year, according to New American Economy research. “They’re a benefit to our society and we’re treating them like a problem.”

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