True immigration reform must include farmworkers

By: - December 11, 2012 9:35 am

With the election past and immigration reform proposals on the horizon, farmers are scrambling to preserve their access to cheap and exploitable foreign labor. North Carolina has more temporary foreign agricultural workers than any other state. These farmworkers, known as H-2A workers for the name of their visa, typically travel to North Carolina from Mexico in late spring or early summer to pick cucumbers, peppers, tobacco and other crops. In November, they pick the sweet potatoes that grace our Thanksgiving tables, and in December they cut our Christmas trees. The vast majority of these North Carolina H-2A workers come here through the auspices of the North Carolina Grower’s Association (NCGA). NCGA fills out the paperwork to apply for permission to bring the workers into the U.S. and places them on the farms of grower members. Farmers pay a substantial fee to the NCGA for each worker provided to them, for their services handling the H2-A Visa paperwork

A spokesperson for the NCGA has complained publicly that the H-2A program is “bureaucratic” and “expensive.” What he characterizes as bureaucracy, however, is the simple requirement that H-2A job openings be advertised and offered to American workers first, as overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor.
As for the expense, a major cost paid by growers benefits the grower association or labor broker, not to the government.

Ironically, in past years the NCGA actually lobbied for a self-serving bill that would have forced North Carolina taxpayers to subsidize the fees that the growers pay to the NCGA, effectively charging taxpayers to take away American jobs. Furthermore, the H-2A wage rate growers complain about – just $9.30 per hour in North Carolina in 2012 – is set by law so as to avoid an adverse effect for American workers. Reducing that wage rate would provide even more encouragement for growers to hire foreign workers over U.S. farmworkers.

It is disingenuous to suggest, as the NCGA does, that there are no U.S. workers willing to do farm work. In reality, growers who are wedded to the H-2A program strenuously resist hiring American workers. Farmworker advocates have documented the many ways in which growers look to avoid hiring U.S. workers, whether it’s imposing artificial productivity quotas, hiring U.S. workers before there is sufficient work for them, or scheduling interviews at inconvenient locations and times.

There are many incentives for growers to prefer foreign H-2A workers. Growers do not have to pay Social Security or unemployment taxes for their H-2A employees. By law, H2-A workers cannot quit a job and seek employment elsewhere, as U.S. citizens can. Their visas tie them to a single employer. The impact of this restriction on a worker’s willingness to question unfavorable working conditions is enormous.

When a manufacturer, a restaurant, or a doctor’s office has a job opening, it advertises and fills it with a local worker. If local workers don’t apply, or if turnover is too great, these employers must raise the wage rate, increase benefits, or improve working conditions. These are fundamental principles of a free labor market; only in agriculture do employers believe that free market principles should not apply. Since the turn of the century growers have sought government intervention to protect their ability to exploit a vulnerable workforce and to prevent them from seeking employment elsewhere, first by laws restricting the mobility of American agricultural workers and then by allowing the importation of foreign workers.

Finally, it is the height of mean-spiritedness to suggest, as the growers have, that H-2A program reform not include a path to citizenship. Many of the H-2A farmworkers in our state have been coming to North Carolina for more than a decade, leaving behind family members for most of the year. They do not qualify for Social Security benefits. Their children are growing up without them. Tied to a single employer, they lack the social mobility to improve their own situation by gaining new skills and seeking better employment.

What the NCGA proposes is outrageous – undocumented workers currently in the U.S. could apply to become H-2A workers, without the ability remain permanently in the country where they have put down roots and raised families. We must reject suggestions that take growers out of the free market economy, marginalize workers, and don’t provide true opportunities for American farmworkers. Instead, we must support immigration reform that lets workers and employers have the freedom to enter into and dissolve employment relationships, keeps families together, and rewards hardworking farmworkers who have contributed the better part of their productive years to this country the opportunity to stay and become U.S. citizens.

Carol Brooke is the Director of the Workers Rights project at the North Carolina Justice Center.

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