From BlueRidgeNow.com, Larry Wooten, 29 Nov 2011.
There are always two sides to every issue, and when it comes to immigration reform there has been plenty of rhetoric for public discourse. But the issue remains a constant sore spot for the state’s agribusiness community.
There has yet to be any meaningful reform. The federal government is cracking down on immigration enforcement, and a number of states have enacted tough measures that are threatening their economic future.
Immigration is a complex issue, no doubt. That’s why the North Carolina Farm Bureau believes it is time for a reasonable dialogue about how we proceed.
Immigration reform and enforcement has a direct economic impact on the state’s $69 billion agribusiness economy, from the seafood industry on the coast, to tobacco and sweet potatoes in the east, to apple and Christmas tree farms in Western North Carolina.
Recent reforms highlighted in The Wall Street Journal showcase labor shortages in Georgia as a direct result of the current Immigration and Customs Enforcement crackdown and the state’s newly enacted e-verify law. According to a study conducted by the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, the ICE crackdown and the effects of new state laws have cost the state’s agriculture nearly $391 million. These are real jobs impacting real farmers who can’t harvest their crops because they don’t have a sufficient labor pool.
There are options for North Carolina’s farmers. You can participate in the government-sanctioned H-2A program, try to secure domestic workers, or take a chance and hire an immigrant work force with questionable documents.
Recent news reports on the H-2A program illustrated that many farmers are being harassed by non-governmental organizations for participating in the guest worker program. The H-2A program was designed to favor domestic workers over foreign guest workers. Using this program is costly for farmers and compliance is a paperwork nightmare.
As a domestic worker protection program, the H-2A program works for certain crops but accounts for only 10 percent of the agricultural labor force in North Carolina. The H-2A program was never intended to work for all of agriculture.
Because of a diverse agribusiness economy, North Carolina’s farmers need new options so they can comply with the law and still have a sufficient labor pool to harvest their crops.
The past few years have been tough for everyone, making it paramount that we have a public policy discussion on immigration reform and that we begin to fix the system because our farmers and our economy can’t afford to wait any longer. There is real money on the table with crops that need a labor force to harvest them. If the farmer can’t harvest his crop, then it is costing our entire economy money it can’t afford to lose right now.
The North Carolina Farm Bureau believes it is critical that agriculture have a stable, workable program that allows guest workers to apply for work, come here, work and live under reasonable conditions and fair housing standards, and then go home.
North Carolina’s farmers need fair, common-sense reform that creates a level playing field that will provide a steady supply of guest workers to help us harvest our crops and generate cash revenues to fuel the state’s economy.
Let’s be clear — that doesn’t mean the Farm Bureau is promoting an “amnesty” policy, nor are we advocating policies that attempt to exploit a “cheap labor” market. We believe we must have a fair, balanced and reasonable approach to immigration enforcement and immigration reform in North Carolina and the United States.
While we are willing to discuss and debate all sides of the immigration issue, including protecting our borders, we must confront economic realities and tell the story. The North Carolina Farm Bureau believes it is time to start standing up for our state’s farmers and agribusiness economy. If not, agriculture and all the allied businesses will suffer.
We must have serious dialogue and reasonable public policy that addresses the No. 2 domestic issue facing our nation today.
Larry Wooten is president of the N.C. Farm Bureau