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Last updated: June 01. 2013 12:47PM -
Anthony Gonzalez
Staff Writer

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Immigration reform advocates are drawing attention this holiday season to keep the subject of immigration “on the table,” while a North Carolina farmer is telling reformers to “mind their own vegetables,” and keep farmers out of the immigration debate.

According to the North Carolina Farmworker Institute, and organization connecting people of faith to the struggle of farm workers, about 150,000 farm workers are in the state during the growing season, and most of them are immigrants.

Like some other work visas, the H-2A is a temporary visa allowing entry to the USA to a single employer for an agricultural season.

In a statement by Carol Brooke, who heads the Workers’ Rights Project of the North Carolina Justice Center, she says that has a downside.

“If there are problems with working conditions, or the amount of work, there’s a great incentive not to complain, because they don’t have the opportunity to switch employers freely, as other workers do. They’re doing a very difficult job, and they deserve to be able to do it under fair working conditions, with their families here and with the ability to participate fully in U.S. society.”

According to Brooke, North Carolina has more temporary foreign agricultural workers than any other state. The farm workers typically travel to North Carolina from Mexico in late spring or early summer to pick cucumbers, peppers, tobacco and other crops.

“In November, the farm workers pick the sweet potatoes that grace our Thanksgiving tables, and in December they cut our Christmas trees,” said Brooke. “The vast majority of these North Carolina H-2A workers come here through the auspices of the North Carolina Growers’ Association (NCGA).”

Brooke’s says the 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 then pay a substantial fee to the NCGA for each worker provided to them, for their services handling the H-2A visa paperwork.

Under the H-2A visa program, farmers do not have to pay Social Security or unemployment taxes. Brooke believes that the H-2A program is an incentive to avoid hiring American workers. She also points out that many of the workers are living in camps and must leave their families behind in their home country.

And according to the organization, growers have sought government intervention to protect their ability to “exploit a vulnerable work force 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.

“When a manufacturer, a restaurant or a doctor’s office has a job opening, it advertises and fills it with a local worker,” said Brooke. “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.”

The United Farm Workers (UFW), the main agricultural union, launched a campaign called “Take Our Jobs”, inviting willing Americans to work in the fields to show growers that locals are willing to hit the fields.

In the following three month span of the launch 3 million people visited takeourjobs.com, but 40% of the responses were hate mail, says Maria Machuca, UFW’s spokesman.

Specific data on Americans living in North Carolina and available for work on farms were not provided to The Tribune.

Critics say that’s because unions and immigration reform organizations are trying to demonize farm workers and toss them into an immigration debate and the controversy is not about the migrant worker.

“Fewer U.S. workers will accept temporary farm jobs that involve manual labor outdoors,” said John Canton, of the Farmer Advocacy Coalition, a start-up volunteer-based organization in North Carolina. “Whether you live in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida or out in California, and whether you grow tobacco, sweet potatoes, or fruits and vegetables, crops don’t wait.”

The labor shortages on the farm are real and so is illegal immigration, recognizes the group, “but one has nothing to do with the other and farmers shouldn’t be asked to let crops rot.”

“Farmers aren’t doing anything wrong” expressed Canton to The Tribune. “No farmer wakes up each morning with a design to cripple a migrant worker and not pay a fair wage,” continued Canton. “No farmer is charged with sitting in the halls of Congress to figure out immigration policy either.

“Let’s be clear, first we try to hire locally, an American, but most people can’t make it through a day on a field. That’s the reality. And when people walk off your fields because they no longer want to work, it puts an entire operation at-risk. Where do farmers go when that happens? Nowhere. They just sit back and watch the entire year rot, helpless, defenseless.”

“The H-2A visa helps,” said Canton, “but it’s become very bureaucratic cornering farmers into feux walls built around cropfields, way too many regulations.”

Canton also stated that all it takes is a shift of wind, an unexpected storm, a tiny drought, and all of the farmer’s annual profits are wiped out regardless of who’s here on an H-2A visa.

As the economy improves, Canton feels there will be even fewer U.S. workers who choose to do farm work and that unions are missing the point. “Unions will not stop until you give up your land, your industry. Even if you pay a prevailing wage, it doesn’t mean you will find enough Americans willing to move crops for a living. Worse, it doesn’t show that Americans are willing to pay double for fruits and vegetables simply because a union is asking for it to be paid to a farm worker.”

Generally, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services may grant H-2A classification for up to the period of time authorized on the temporary labor certification. H-2A classification may be extended for qualifying employment in increments of up to 1 year each. The maximum period of stay in H-2A classification is 3 years.

A person who has held H-2A non-immigrant status for a total of 3 years must depart and remain outside the United States for an uninterrupted period of 3 months before seeking readmission as an H-2A non-immigrant.

Under pressure from farmers, Canton stated that several bills were introduced in Congress this year to streamline or replace the controversial H-2A program and to improve its effectiveness.

“Nothing passed because Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on any blueprint,” said Canton who is also a farmer of tobacco. “Democrats oppose temporary worker programs and prefer to grant legal status to everyone at the border. Republicans favor visa programs and oppose any form of legalization. However, when it comes to farming, both need to mind their own vegetables and stop placing farmers in the middle of their immigration debate, because that’s what their argument is really about.”

No matter how temporary H-2A workers are in the United States, the US Department of Labor reports that 53% of farm workers nationally are undocumented (working without legal authorization), 25% are US citizens, and 21% are legal permanent residents. Neither the UFW or the North Carolina Justice Center returned our calls to discuss the undocumented labor stats and to provide a perspective on who’s to blame.

When pressed by The Tribune, Canton didn’t provide specifics either when asked if farmers are hiring undocumented workers.

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