This article appeared in the fall 2016 edition of the Georgia Political Review. It can be found in PDF format on page 22 of the magazine.
In a scene that has grown to be ubiquitous in the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump rumbles his way through his famously unabashed stump speech in front of thousands of adherents to the Trump gospel. As Trump hits his most popular points—the deportation of all undocumented Hispanic immigrants and the restoration of “Americanism,” not “globalism”—the crowd erupts into cheers. Chants of “Build That Wall” and “Make America Great Again” provide the soundtrack for Trump’s rallies. However, the people chanting—many of whom reside in the South and the Midwest—will likely end up bearing the brunt of Trump’s proposed actions against undocumented immigrants and foreign trade.
A hallmark of Trump’s unprecedented campaign trail is his insistence on the construction of a wall that covers the length of the southern border and the deportation of all 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in America. The central defense Trump wields for these plans is that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from legal U.S. residents. This is particularly applicable to the agriculture industry, in which half of the workforce lacks proper work authorization, according the U.S. Department of Labor. Why, Trump asks, should we allow millions of illegal immigrants to work our farms when there are capable American workers that could easily fill their places? There is a simple answer: Americans simply do not want these jobs.
Both the federal and state governments have recently passed laws that seek to crack down on illegal immigration. Arizona’s stringent law that enables state law enforcement to stop anyone reasonably suspected of being an illegal alien became the inspiration for similar bills that passed the Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina legislatures. After implementation, such laws have been successful in decreasing the number of undocumented residents in these states. In Georgia, for example, thousands of illegal Hispanic immigrants left the state in the months following the passage of House Bill 87 in 2011. As an unintended consequence, the next year a University of Georgia (UGA) study found that the state incurred a $140 million agricultural loss due to a lack of labor. Without undocumented workers to harvest them, Georgia crops literally rotted in the fields, leading to huge economic setbacks for the Peach State
With much of the agricultural workforce fleeing the state’s rigid laws that put them in imminent danger of deportation, Georgia saw a dramatic decline in its staple industry, which contributes approximately $74 billion to the state’s economy. According to the UGA study commissioned by the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, in the year after HB 87 was implemented, Georgia farmers were about 40 percent short of the labor needed to harvest the previous year’s crops.
Georgia is not unique in this diminished agricultural production. A study prepared by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform concluded that the entire country’s agricultural output dropped $1.4 billion in 2012—the year after many of these laws targeting illegal immigration were passed. If President Trump indeed follows through with shipping off all undocumented migrants living in America, he will be depriving what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has assessed to be an $835 billion industry of much of its workforce. While the toll of this action would be felt by the whole nation, the states that rely most heavily on agriculture for their economies will be disproportionately harmed. Ironically, five out of the top ten agricultural states in America (Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Indiana) are firmly leaning toward Trump, and one (North Carolina) is considered a battleground state. Demographically speaking, white rural voters in particular are the ones both most likely to rely on agriculture for income and most inclined to vote for Trump. While Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric may appeal to this demographic, if these people vote for him they could be risking the evisceration of one of their most important industries.
Another one of Trump’s greatest hits is his pronounced distrust of other countries with regard to trade. Trump’s campaign is bent on restoring a rendition of “Americanism” that is fundamentally inconsistent with foreign trade. Whether it be China, South Korea, or Mexico, Trump’s penchant to claim that the United States is being cheated by other nations has roused many within the working class. However, more international companies are bringing business to America than ever before, and it’s paying off. Foreign direct investment in the U.S. has been steadily rising over the past two decades, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that investment has increased every year since 2008. Close to $3 trillion is invested in the U.S. by foreign entities each year, and over 10 million jobs in the United States are tied to foreign trade, and both figures only appear to be rising. If Trump’s proposed trade isolationism comes to fruition, this economic growth would be stalled, and it would be Southern white working class Americans—some of Trump’s staunchest supporters—that would be hurt the most.
In the 1970s and 80s, states across the South decided to shift the focus of their economies away from home-grown manufacturing jobs. While these jobs still serve as the core of the Rust Belt’s economy, the South decided to instead rely on free trade for economic growth and sought out foreign investment in their economies. Since then, Southern states have been ahead of the rest of the country in attracting foreign businesses to create new jobs for the middle class. Today, they make up seven out of the top ten states that receive the most foreign investment (Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama) and have reaped significant benefits. And within these states, it is the white working class that is most dependent on these internationally-tied jobs. Yet, it is precisely these people that are leaning most heavily towards Trump.
In 2014 alone, Georgia received $1.1 billion in foreign investment—third most in the country—and created 6,348 new jobs as a result, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development. In recent years Governor Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly have worked hard to create a business-friendly environment that has attracted international companies such as Kia, Mercedes-Benz, and Caesarstone. But economic retrograde for these states seems likely under Trump. And while Trump places blame on “disastrous” trade deals such as the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for shipping American jobs overseas, such agreements have allowed the U.S. to become the most dominant economic force in the world.
Trump’s supporters see merit in his straight-talk style, anti-establishment sentiment, and ostensible business savvy. However, many of these qualities have nothing to do with Trump’s policies, and putting his policies under scrutiny reveals that their consequences would jeopardize the economic welfare of the people likely to vote for him. Ridding the nation of undocumented immigrants would leave farmers with a severe labor shortage. Closing ports to foreign investment would wipe out 35 years’ worth of economic progress. Both of these policies would have tangible effects detrimental to many of Trump’s most loyal supporters. So when Southerners and Midwesterners hit the polls this November, they ought not think about the abstract messages to which they subscribe, but instead contemplate the actual impact of their votes on their wallets.