The heated tempers of the nations border states are driving the debate over immigration policy. States such as South Carolina, though, are reckoning with a different set of challenges: a skimpy agriculture labor market and cumbersome immigrant worker programs that go unfixed amid partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill.
Over 20,000 U.S. farms employ more than 435,000 immigrant workers legally every year, according to 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census data. Thousands probably tens of thousands more are employed illegally. In the fruit orchards of the Carolinas, farmers confront a blue-collar labor vacuum.
Because were not a border state, its definitely harder to get people over this far from the border to work, said Chalmers Carr, the owner of the East Coasts largest peach grower, South Carolinas Titan Farms. 2006, 2007, even 2008, we had a very robust economy and there were not enough farmworkers then. And theres truly not enough farmworkers now, legal or illegal.
South Carolina in particular has a unique view, having seen the greatest percentage increase in Hispanic population in the country from 2000 to 2010 nearly 150 percent, according to the most recently available census data. Although its Hispanic population sits at a comparatively low 5.1 percent, the increase reflects decisions by immigrants to make the trek deeper into the U.S. And while many are taking temporary seasonal work, the labor shortage has become a permanent issue for growers and workers alike.
Its not a temporary situation, said Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director of Americas Voice, which focuses on changing immigration policy. It might be a seasonal job, but were going to keep having grapes that need to be picked and cows that need to be milked, and immigrants are coming to do that sort of labor.
Immigrant workers who slipped over the borders years ago are aging out of the workforce, and their younger, more able-bodied counterparts are being kept from the fields because of the bureaucratic clutter. But the crops and the growing season dont wait.
Were losing that aging population, but were also not getting anybody replacing them because of the mess we have at the border and no immigration law, said Manuel Cunha Jr., the president of Californias Nisei Farmers League, which represents over 180 types of farms, including those that produce raisins, vegetables and flowers.
The trend certainly isnt limited to the southern edges of the country either.
In northern Ohio, were on the front lines, and its not because were on the northern border, said Mark Gilson, the owner and operator of Gilson Gardens, a nursery in northeast Ohio, which relies largely on seasonal immigrant workers. Its because the agricultural jobs are here.
The idea by those on the anti-immigration front that U.S. workers should fill those agriculture jobs is simply out of kilter with reality, the farmers say.
I get lambasted for why do I hire migrant workers? Why dont I hire Americans? Carr said. I can clearly tell you Americans arent out there willing to do these jobs.
Hes quick to supply numbers that back up his claim. From 2010 to 2012, Carr said, he advertised for 2,000 jobs. Only 432 less than 25 percent of his applicants were U.S. workers. Then 390 of them never showed up or they quit on the first day.
About 5 percent of the agriculture jobs needed, you'll get American workers for. . . . Youve got a choice to import your food or you can import your labor to harvest your food, Carr said.
Local Americans dont want to do this work. Its seasonal; it tends to be low-paying, agreed Gilson. People who are on unemployment dont want to go off unemployment to do this type of work.
Those realities may be whats shifting the debate in states that traditionally opposed any immigration restructuring. The support of South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham for a less-restrictive immigration policy has prompted much criticism from other more conservative Republicans. Such reaction forced him to back off a push to overhaul immigration law in 2008. Even those conservative attitudes are changing now, however.
Despite the shift in perception, lawmakers left Washington for the August recess with immigration plans in limbo and little expected to come of them once they return in September and turn their focus to Novembers elections.
Away from the partisan politics inside the Beltway, its a delay that could wreak havoc for seasonal growers who are limited by complicated federal programs such as the H-2A and I-9 temporary immigrant visas.
Both programs provide passes for immigrants looking to cross the border for seasonal work. But minimum wage and identity requirements make the programs difficult for growers to adhere to, and they can be incentives either to buck the system or to move farms overseas.
When we need those workers we have to have them, because Mother Nature doesnt hold up and wait for us to get workers, said Cunha. When its time to harvest, its time to harvest.
On top of that, South Carolinas Carr says the recent influx of children slipping across the U.S. border has clogged the bureaucratic process further.
I dont know how many problems go on this long without being fixed. . . . I dont think businesses such as mine can continue to wait and operate based on what may happen six years from now, he said.
Despite the heated politics and lawmakers seeming unwillingness to address the problem, farmers and experts say people are starting to recognize that any changes in immigration law will have complicated economic and personal effects.
These arent just people with their heads down in the field for us. We respect their hard work, and we share traditional American values with them, said Gilson, of Ohio. Were small businesses, so we tend to be politically conservative. And yet were conflicted, in a way, because we need these people and we respect these people.
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