From ENCToday.com, Wesley Brown, 9 Oct 2011.
The combinations of letters and numbers heading the piles of paperwork filed this week in the offices of local farmers almost blended together in an assortment of pairings commonly heard in a Bingo hall.
“I-9,” said Kendall Hill, of Tull Hill Farms, of the list of forms required by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to prove each of the 140 workers currently staffed in his fields in Grifton to dig up sweet potatoes were eligible for employment.
In some drawers, the groupings went on and on in a list that spanned hundreds of pages and included such examples as “H-2A,” “I-129,” and “ETA-232, 385, 790, 795 and 9142.”
Already considered by farmers a “cumbersome” collection of records to audit the field workers they hire, many in the agriculture industry fear a new immigration policy being debated in Congress could slow the employment process and threaten the success of their harvest with even more superfluous paperwork.
The Legal Workforce Act — possibly up for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives by the end of the week — would require all American businesses to run their employees through E-Verify, an electronic program that confirms each is legally entitled to work in the U.S.
While some politicians expect the bill to fizzle and die in the Democrat-controlled Senate, farmers say the risk of operation costs increasing and eating through revenues is real for an industry that has legally recruited thousands of foreigners — and members of their families — through a guest-worker program since the early 1990s.
“You can write up what sounds like an ideal program, but if implementation of it by some bureaucrats with an agenda puts up roadblocks, then it is not going to be workable and farmers will not use it,” said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the N.C. Grower’s Association in Vass, the nation’s largest supplier of H2A-visas, or temporary work permits for foreign workers.
A growing problem
Half the state’s 1,200 farms — including a “robust membership around the Kinston area” — that bring in workers from Mexico and South America to do the un-air conditioned, backbreaking work Americans largely refuse to take contract with the N.C. Grower’s Association, Wicker said.
This year alone, Tar Heel growers were granted permission to hire 9,050 men and women from across the border, up 150 from 2009. The figure — by far the most of any state — represents more than 10 percent of the state’s agricultural workforce and nearly 15 percent of the 66,000 cap on the national program, said Larry Parker, spokesman for the N.C. Employment Security Commission.
Although there is no way to know, Parker said, many estimate that upwards of 70 percent of the 85,000 farm workers in the state are undocumented.
Wicker said a H2A program that is “too bureaucratic, expensive and litigious,” has pushed growers to the brink in getting workers in fields and forced them to pay illegal immigrants cash under the table to better turn a profit, while still harvesting their crop on time. The illicit payments also lead to foreigners outstaying their visas and seeking jobs at better-paying farms.
“It has gotten to the point that we are at a competitive disadvantage,” Wicker said. “Fundamentally, the United States is supposed to be about fairness and we would like to see a public policy in place that encourages — not discourages — farmers to comply with the law.”
The Department of Labor requires H2A farms to pay their workers a minimum wage of $9.37 — up 30 percent from $7.25 last year — while also providing housing camps and regular transportation.
Brent Jackson, whose farm in Sampson County is a member of the growers association, said the costs equal to $1,000 a head and those who rely on H2A workers survive by budgeting the costs over nine-month long contracts.
The strategy shrinks pay and benefits to a manageable $12 an hour, Wicker said. But for the berry pickers in the area, who many expect to be hit the hardest by E-Verify, totals can soar higher than $15 an hour as they have a large number of employees for a shorter period — four to six weeks.
“The bottom line is employers are going to be caught between a rock and a hard spot with this,” said Jackson, who — now a senator in the N.C. General Assembly representing Lenoir County — has spent more than 15 years lobbying in Washington D.C. for immigration reform that allows immigrants to earn while on a temporary employment visa in the U.S.
“If they make it as stringent as it is in some of other states, North Carolina’s economy, especially its farming industry, will find itself in the same situation Georgia has found itself in,” he said.
Georgia recently reformed its laws to make it a crime to harbor or transport aliens.
The ‘best’ solution
Wicker said his farmers, for the most part, have said if E-Verify is what it takes to level the playing field then “let’s have it.” But he and Hill said they have doubts about whether the federal government can orchestrate such a large operation because of the lack of consistency in the regulations of H2A.
“The problem is already here,” said Hill, whose farm is a member of the growers association. “We do not need to wish for E-Verify, until we first get something to go along with it.”
The two said politicos across the state have written letters and lobbied on Capitol Hill for federal legislators to lessen the numbers of “hoops they currently have to jump through” to hire internationally.
Lawmakers instead want to take inventory, deport the illegal immigrants not contributing to the economy and after fining those who are pitching-in, maybe let them prove their worth and possibly grant them citizenship.
“There’s a responsibility of those who employ Hispanics to verify whether they are here legally or illegally,” said U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who represents the 3rd District that includes Lenoir and Jones counties.
Jones, in favor of the Legal Workforce Act, called E-Verify “good, common sense legislation” that “really is the best way to get a handle on the people who are in this country illegally.”
“If an employer does his or her job and it turns out the individual has committed fraud with their verification papers, then you need to know and most employers, I think, want to know,” he said.
Hill said “the government knows who we’re working.” It is well-documented, he said, in the U.S. offices of the Citizenship and Immigration Services and the departments of labor and homeland security, the three agencies farmers must go through in its 90-day process to get approval to bring in foreign workers.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., who is opposed to the legislation, agreed with Hill and other farmers as he said costs of the program, estimated at $2.6 billion in fees and penalties, would place an “unfair” and “unreasonable burden” on America’s small businesses.
“While the business community should have some responsibility in helping us with our detection efforts, it cannot be solely on them,” said Butterfield, of the 1st District, which includes Lenoir, Greene and Jones counties. “It is more of a law enforcement issue than an E-Verify issue.”
Farmers, in theory, said E-Verify, which they say could work, may cause the workforce to decrease, but they do not think illegal planters and harvesters will just pack up and leave or their growers will stop cash payments.
“If anything, it will force farmers to take a closer look and more committed effort to comply with the law, but there still will be a small percentage that will look for ways around the law,” Wicker said. “That’s the way it has always been and that’s the way it will always be.”
Wesley Brown can be reached at 252-559-1075 or firstname.lastname@example.org.