RALEIGH The state's agricultural industry is pushing for an override of the governor's veto of an immigration bill that would have made it easier to use seasonal laborers.
The N.C. Farm Bureau said Friday it is working with legislative leaders to persuade members of the General Assembly to reconvene in less than two weeks for override votes. They say the matter is urgent because without an override there will be a shortage of workers, which will lead to rotting crops and then less produce in grocery stores.
“With the veto, it's going to be devastating for our industry and for the majority of the farm industry, period,” said Ralph Carter Jr., a blueberry farmer from Bladen County.
Challenging the governor's veto has traction with agricultural interests and with House Speaker Thom Tillis, both of whom say they are concerned about more than that single bill. Both blame inaction in Washington for failing to address the nation's immigration issues. Tillis is a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate and is already talking about immigration.
By law, Gov. Pat McCrory has to reconvene the legislature to consider veto overrides within 40 days of adjournment, which falls on Sept. 4. The General Assembly will have to meet then or inform the governor the session would be unnecessary, which requires they send him a petition signed by a majority of both chambers by Aug. 25. If they do that, the legislature could also wait until next year's short session to take up the override.
McCrory on Thursday vetoed two bills: House Bill 786, the immigration legislation, and House Bill 392, which would have allowed welfare applicants to be drug-tested. The provision in the immigration bill that prompted McCrory's veto was a little-noticed part of a complex, controversial package dealing with driving permits and changes in the criminal justice system affecting illegal immigrants. In the end, the bill was watered down to simply require a study of those issues.
But a small part of the bill that remained turned out to carry major consequences for agriculture. Under current law, employers don't have to screen workers through the E-Verify immigrant status check if they employ them for less than 90 days in a year. The federal program checks whether someone can legally work in this country.
The bill originally would have exempted all seasonal workers from E-Verify, but a late amendment reined that in by setting the exemption at up to nine months. Rep. John Blust, a Republican from Greensboro who wrote that amendment, said Friday nine months was sufficient for seasonal workers and he didn't want to “totally eviscerate” E-Verify.
The veto leaves the current 90-day law in place, unless it is overridden. While agriculture preferred the original version, the final bill was still an improvement for growers over the current law. But McCrory said that would make it easier to hire illegal immigrants, take jobs away from legal residents and spread to other industries.
Crops ‘left to rot'?
“This bill was originally designed to help our farmers,” McCrory said in a video message in which he asked residents to call on lawmakers to sustain his veto. “But what was created was a loophole big enough to drive a truck through that many businesses can abuse at the expense of our North Carolina workers.”
On Friday, a North Carolina chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly praised McCrory's veto, saying the bill would inconsistently subject workers to E-Verify, leave employees – especially Latinos – vulnerable to unprincipled employers, create confusion among employers, and increase unemployment.
But agricultural interests say they have a hard enough time finding enough workers to get them through their various seasons.
N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Steve Troxler thinks the current 90-day exemption isn't sufficient for most farmers, said his spokesman, Brian Long. Growing seasons aren't limited to 90 days, Long noted.
Tobacco growing season begins in the winter and can last through harvest as late as October, he said. Sweet potatoes, tomatoes and apples are other examples of seasons that extend more than three months.
“If foreign workers who are in the country legally perceive one state as having more hoops to jump through, they will avoid that state,” Long said. “That could put farmers at risk of not being able to hire sufficient numbers of workers. Ultimately, crops could be left in fields to rot.”
‘They're not taking jobs'
The size of the problem comes into focus on a blueberry farm such as Carter's, where between 300 and 600 seasonal laborers work the crops on a well-established route that brings them to North Carolina from Florida, and then north to New Jersey and Michigan.
“We've got very few local people who will come out and work,” Carter said. “It is hands-on labor. They're not taking jobs, as the governor thinks. They're jobs that people will not do, is what it comes down to.”
Carter said farmers are already documenting the seasonal workers, as required by federal law, but they need relief from the current requirement to run all those employees through E-Verify if they are only around for three months. “It's going to cut our labor force down,” he said.
Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau, said his organization isn't upset with McCrory but its members still want to see the veto overturned.
“What the General Assembly of North Carolina needed to do to be helpful – not only for agriculture but for the nation – was to link arms in a bipartisan way and urge Congress and our congressional delegation, Democrats and Republicans, to put pressure on Washington to get the broken immigration problem fixed,” Wooten said.
“If they do that, many of the issues we're dealing with – E-Verify, driver's permits, attendance at schools, proper identification, a whole host of other issues – can be corrected.”
Tillis, responding to the veto in a statement Thursday, also blamed Washington. His office said Tillis would be talking to Republican lawmakers in the coming days to decide what to do about the veto.
In Congress, the House and Senate have competing immigration-overhaul bills, although both chambers agree on requiring employers to use E-Verify, along with some other key provisions. The Senate passed its bill in June, while the House is still working out details. Once the House acts, negotiators from both chambers would try to come up with a compromise bill.
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