06/29/07 — Farmers: Immigration a key issue

View Archive

Farmers: Immigration a key issue

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 29, 2007 1:45 PM

Farmers in Wayne County, though not surprised, were discouraged to hear Thursday that the U.S. Senate had voted to effectively kill the bi-partisan immigration reform bill being pushed by President George Bush.

"It's just really disappointing. I thought it might have had enough support with the president behind it and everything, but I guess he's not the most popular guy up there right now," local farmer Craig West said. "I do think the vast majority of people are against it right now because all they see is amnesty, which it's not.

"But now we haven't done anything to secure our workforce or to secure our borders. All they've done is turn it into a tool to use during the presidential election and that's disappointing."

Craig, along with his brother, Brad, and their father, Jerry, run West Farms in Fremont. They grow 3,400 acres of tobacco, corn, wheat and soybeans. They also have two turkey farms.

Much of their migrant labor works in the tobacco fields from early spring to late summer, but they do have a handful of permanent workers who stay on all year.

They had been hoping for a resolution to the debate that would not only secure the border and offer a fair solution to the 12 million illegal immigrants already here, but also -- and most important to them -- one that would create an improved guest worker program.

"I don't think we can put it into words how important it is to fix this. We wouldn't exist without migrant labor," Brad said. "If they're acting up and doing wrong, deport them, but one bad apple shouldn't ruin the bunch.

"There's millions of good immigrants who work hard and try to provide for their families."

Currently, many of their laborers come to their farm through the H-2a agriculture guest worker program.

The program allows for temporary workers to come to the United States and work in various agricultural fields, provided that they return home for a portion of the year -- and Craig said, North Carolina uses more H-2a workers than any other state.

Most years, the Wests' 17 workers -- many of whom have been coming for years -- filter in between early April and the end of June, and stay at least until after the tobacco harvest, leaving by mid-November at the latest.

"They're good folks and we like seeing them," Craig said. "They're almost like family."

Each of the workers supplied through the H-2a program is recruited by the North Carolina Grower's Association from Mexico and other Latin American countries. That process ensures farmers that all their workers are in the country legally.

"We do everything we're supposed to do," Brad said. "If they don't have (the proper documentation) then we run them off. Farmers can't afford to do it the wrong way anymore."

Once the workers are hired, the farmers are then required to pay $1,000 toward transportation costs to the farm for each, as well as an hourly wage of $9.02. They also are required to provide housing and transportation for the workers while they are in the country.

In addition, the farmers are required to advertise for local workers before hiring any migrant labor

"We've been part of this program for five or six years, and we've never had a local person work for us," Brad continued. "If ($9.02) isn't enough, I don't know what is."

The problem, Craig added, is that most local workers simply don't want to do the job.

"It's long hours. It's hot. It's hard work," he said. "There's just not a lot of people who want to do that type of work.

"This is not cheap labor. This is just a steady supply of good, legal, dependable labor."

But, they continued, the program, as well as the entire immigration system is in need of help. The North Carolina Farm Bureau is estimating that without guest workers, the state's agriculture economy could lose as much as $260 million a year.

The now-defeated legislation would have given farmers more flexibility in providing housing and lowered the artificial wage floor to $7.53 an hour, making the guest workers more affordable.

Now, however, that reform is unlikely to be debated again until after the presidential election in 2008.

"What it means for us right now is just that the H-2a program is going to continue to cost us a lot of money, but we'll continue to use it. We don't have any choice. It's a dire necessity," Craig said. "But what it means for the future, I don't know."

"This bill might not have been the right answer, but it was the closest we could have gotten. We needed to get something passed."