EAGLE SPRINGS, NORTH CAROLINA — 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.
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.
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."
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.”
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.