News / USA

    US Farmers Back Immigration Reform

    US Farmers Back Immigration Reformi
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    December 31, 2012 2:08 PM
    Immigration reform is expected to be back on the agenda in the new U.S. Congress, after an election in which voters with Latino roots decisively supported President Obama's bid for a second term. Most of the U.S. farm workforce is made up of illegal Latino immigrants, despite a guest-worker program which would allow them to enter and work in the U.S. legally. However, farmers say that system is broken. VOA's Steve Baragona reports.
    North Carolina tobacco farmer Billy Carter is a rarity among American farmers. He hires Mexican workers legally, through the government's H-2A visa program.

    But this year was a good example of its shortcomings. The program requires farmers to set workers' start date months in advance.

    The weather has its own schedule. A rainy summer meant the harvest arrived early; earlier, in fact, than his harvest crew.

    And that meant lost tobacco.

    “You’re looking at a crop that is done, all but the harvest, and you don’t have the laborers to bring it in,” Carter says.

    Immigration reform

    With most of the U.S. farm workforce made up of illegal immigrants, farmers like Carter want the next Congress to fix the nation's immigration laws to ensure a reliable, legal labor force.

    Immigration reform is expected to be back on the agenda in the next U.S. Congress, after an election in which voters with Hispanic roots decisively supported President Obama's bid for a second term.

    However, critics say farmers should be raising wages and improving conditions for legal, domestic workers rather than turning to immigrants to do the difficult and dangerous work of agriculture.

    Complicated system

    Many farmers opt out of the government's seasonal agricultural worker program and the risk of lost crops isn't the only reason.

    “It’s definitely fair to say the H-2A system is complicated," says Lee Wicker with the North Carolina Growers Association.

    Employers must demonstrate no American workers are available. Government-inspected housing must be provided. Rules for fair wages, worker safety and more require more paperwork.

    NCGA will handle the bureaucracy for about $1,000 per worker.

    Wicker warns farmers the system is complex and expensive.
        
    “If you have a way to harvest your crops without going into the H-2A program, you should do that as long as you can," he says.

    Legal labor scarce

    Most farmers are taking his advice. Government figures show H-2A workers make up just 10 percent of the agricultural labor force.

    Farmers say they want to hire legal workers, but Americans apparently don’t want the work.

    In 2007, the North Carolina Farm Bureau tried recruiting workers with radio ads and a toll-free number.

    According to N.C. Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten, the ads told “anybody that wanted to work in agriculture [to] give us a call on this 800 number. We’d try to get you a job placed working in agriculture. We had about three calls."

    Lower wages

    There are good reasons for that lack of interest, according to Eric Ruark at the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

    “I agree with the grower who is claiming he can’t find a worker who is willing to take below-living wage to endure brutal conditions which sometimes may be unsanitary and unsafe," he says. "People aren’t going to line up to take those jobs and we shouldn’t expect that they would.”

    Ruark says raising farm workers’ wages by a third or more would not put farmers out of business or cause major pain at the grocery store.

    He says the rights of American and immigrant workers are better protected when farmers use the H-2A program and that, if growers can get away without using the H-2A program, they don't have to pay workers as well.

    "We can see that as very simple logic," Ruark says. "And they see the simple logic, but it’s unacceptable. And it’s not only illegal, it’s unethical behavior.”

    Legitimate concerns

    Farmer Billy Carter chooses to hire H-2A workers because, despite the program's flaws, he gets a reliable, and legal, supply of good workers. And he can afford it for his high-value crop.

    But he says Congress needs to fix it because it doesn't work for many other farmers.

    “But it’s such a political football, and there are legitimate concerns on both sides of the equation that, at this point, are not being addressed, and certainly won’t be in the short term,” Carter says.

    That's why he doubts the new political season's harvest will include significant immigration reform.

    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Delmar Jackson from: Miami
    December 31, 2012 7:40 PM
    I wish to applaud Mr Baragona. This is the first article on immigration and farm workers I have read all year long that mentioned the Farm worker visa program. He also is to be applauded for using a balanced source of information by taking the time to include someone from FAIR who is on the side of less USA immigration. Nearly all immigration articles in the media are one sided, and are on the side of those that want another amnesty and to deonize all who want less immigration.
    The farm worker visa program is not perfect, and can be made better, but it is a better solution than farmers hiring illegal workers via crooked labor contractors that abuse and exploit the workers.
    I would like to see some reporting on how the USDA seemed to have stopped focusng on mechanization of farm work. Many western countries that have difficulty hiring farm labor use mechanization very sucessfully.
    One of the biggest road blocks to pasing e verify in Florida this year was a republican senator that is also a millionaire blueberry farmer that said in public he needs illegals as only they have the skills to pick his berries. if you go on youtube you will see videos of a dozen different mechanized blueberry pickers needing no illegals.
    The farm visa program should be made better and we should stop talking about more amnesties unless there is enforcement to keep more illegals from coming, and not just across the borders, maost illegals coming now are indians and chinese overstaying their visas.

    by: Allen Bunch
    December 31, 2012 3:10 PM
    You better believe the farmers do not want to lose their slave like labor. The only reason they cannot find legal workers is because they refuse to pay competitive wages like other businesses.

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