Immigration debate gets local
By Scott Nicholson
A bill to address immigrant workers has drawn the attention of some local officials and farmers.
The Agricultural Employment and Workforce Protection Act is co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and is designed to streamline the process by which immigrant workers can get temporary permits to stay in the United States.
The H2A program allows workers, mostly from Mexico, to stay in the country for up to 10 months a year. Such workers must have a sponsor and the workers often move with the season, though some government officials are concerned that immigrants illegally stay in the country and burden the social system.
Last week, the Watauga County board of commissioners adopted a resolution that asked lawmakers to acknowledge the importance of immigrant labor to local agriculture, particularly the Christmas tree industry.
Commissioner Keith Honeycutt said the issue was complex but needed to be addressed. He said no one was supporting amnesty for all workers who had already illegally entered the country or overstayed their registered periods of employment, but said some form of registration was needed so legitimate workers could continue to play a role in the economy.
“The Christmas tree industry depends heavily on Hispanic workers,” Honeycutt said. “They (growers) told me they don’t have a labor force that can handle this right now.”
The legislation makes a tacit acknowledgment that imported workers are willing to take jobs that most Americans won’t take, and often at lower pay. Because of the relative strength of American currency, many workers find they can support their families better by working part of the year in the United States, even though some expenses might be higher.
Meghan Baker, a local agricultural extension agent who works with tree growers, said, “It’s a huge issue for the tree industry. It virtually could not function without them (temporary workers).” She said trees were grown by an aging population, and though smaller-scale growers often did the field work themselves, about 10 larger operations in the county relied on immigrant workers.
She estimated there were about 100 permitted immigrant workers in the county, and said many had been in the industry for up to a decade. She said the process, while cumbersome, was “a humanitarian way to work with willing and skilled workers.”
Baker is concerned that if the system becomes more bureaucratic and cumbersome, farmers will be more tempted to use illegal immigrants and keep the process out from under the government’s eye. Employers not only have to pay the government in order to use the H2A program, they also have guaranteed costs and pay an average of more than $8 an hour.
The proposed legislation broadens the types of industries that are eligible for the H2A program, strengthens registration requirements to make workers easier to track and establishes a tiered system that rewards those workers who have followed proper procedure for several years. Employers will pay a processing fee for each worker they sponsor, and must reimburse transportation costs and provide no-cost housing and Worker’s Compensation coverage.
The act would also create a “blue card” status, an interim version of the “green card” held to establish U.S. citizenship. Eligible workers have 24 months to become properly registered and legally authorized and must be eligible after screening and background checks are conducted. Under the “blue card” provision, the sponsoring employer must pay a government fee of $3,000 and attest that recruiting efforts to find U.S. workers were unsuccessful.
An e-mail from the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform states the main features of the bill are border security and enforcement, a general-industry temporary worker program, a plan for the estimated 11 million undocumented workers already in the U.S. to keep working and earn legal permanent residency and a specific agricultural component to the language.
The bill would also spell out actions that would leave to termination of worker rights and subsequent deportation.
Baker said local growers have a “unified voice” agreeing the system needs an overhaul as it puts lawful employers in a tough position because they have more responsibility.
She said the changes could affect agriculture nationwide, including possibly making the food supply more vulnerable as local agriculture diminishes. “If the harshest bill goes through, which is to send everybody packing, it will cripple U.S. agriculture,” Baker said. “It would have huge implications for the food system.”
Honeycutt said he believed no extreme changes would take place. “Amnesty and (complete) deportation will not happen,” he said.
The immigration bill stalled in the U.S. Senate Friday with bipartisan opposition. It could be weeks before debate continues.