NC farm mirrors national trend: H-2A labor on rise

But the program's drawbacks have farmers facing hard choice

Medill News ServiceNovember 6, 2011 

  • 70,000 to 100,000: Estimated number of undocumented agricultural workers in North Carolina

    22,963 : Number of ICE alien removals from the Carolinas and Georgia for fiscal year 2011

    2,196: Number of I-9 audits nationwide in fiscal year 2010

    2,746: Number of worksite cases initiated nationwide in fiscal year 2010

    119: Number of convictions of employers nationwide in fiscal year 2010

    52,400: Number of farms in North Carolina in 2010

    Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, NCGA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  • Under President Barack Obama's administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has shifted its focal point from undocumented workers to employers who knowingly hiring illegal labor.

    This approach has seemingly paid off with the agency removing 396,906 illegal aliens, the majority having been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors.

    But in a memo to employees earlier this year, ICE Director John Morton confronted the reality of balancing the agency's monumental task with its finite resources. Morton wrote that ICE "only has resources to remove approximately 400,000 aliens per year, less than 4 percent of the estimated illegal alien population in the United States."

    With such a limitation, Morton said ICE is focusing its effort on critical infrastructure, public safety and border security. In other words, agriculture isn't explicitly a priority, although it may overlap with investigations.

    But farmers getting caught hiring illegal workers is "a very real possibility," said Bob Andrews, the ICE assistant special agent in charge of coordinating worksite enforcements for Georgia and the Carolinas. ICE has conducted investigations involving agricultural-related businesses, said Del Richburg, assistant special agent in charge for North Carolina. But Richburg said ICE can't quantify the number of cases involving N.C. agricultural-related businesses because the agency does not break down data by industry and signs nondisclosure agreements with those civilly punished. Still, he characterized the number as "a handful" in the past year.

    Gabriel Silverman

Few people in Engelhard understand the effect of government bureaucracy better than vegetable farmer Debbie Daughtry. Nearly two feet of regulatory paperwork is stacked on her desk.

Since participating in the H-2A visa program that provides farmers with legal, temporary workers from foreign countries - typically Mexico - Daughtry has become a full-time paper pusher, organizing applications, certifications, time sheets and more.

Because her farm in Hyde County, about 180 miles east of Raleigh, follows the law, Daughtry believes she's at a competitive disadvantage to the majority of other farmers who decide to hire undocumented labor, usually at a fraction of the cost.

Debbie and her husband, Wilson, started using H-2A labor five years ago because even after receiving the proper documentation from their seasonal labor force, including Social Security numbers, something didn't feel right.

"In the back of your mind you can't help but believe we probably don't have a 100 percent legal workforce," Wilson Daughtry said.

With few Americans willing to take on the physically demanding work at the wages offered, farmers face a choice: join the expensive, bureaucratic program or hire cheaper undocumented labor and take their chances with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"We were afraid that as we go to harvest the crop ... here comes the enforcement people and there goes our workers," Wilson Daughtry said. "We borrow a tremendous amount of operating money from our local bank. Up to the point of harvesting, it's all out there."

Recent events in Alabama, Georgia and Arizona highlighted this gamble when workers fled fearing stricter immigration enforcement legislation.

There has been an uptick in H-2A use in the past five years, but the majority of foreign, farm labor remains staffed outside legal channels.

"Honestly, we're mad as hell about the situation," Wilson Daughtry said. "We've tried to do the right thing and because of that we got ourselves kicked in the teeth and it's cost us a bunch of money. And at some point you've got to ask if it's worth it or not."

It's not just the time required to navigate the paperwork. Farmers who use H-2A labor must pay to advertise the positions first to American workers. U.S. citizens have first shot at the jobs but several farmers say domestic hires rarely make it through the first day, let alone the season, because of the difficulty of the work.

In addition, H-2A employers must provide free housing, pay for transportation to and from the worker's country, cover all visa costs and guarantee a wage more than $2 higher than federal minimum wage.

Before a single vegetable is picked, the Daughtrys estimate they must pay upward of $1,200 per employee. With 58 H-2A employees that means nearly an additional $70,000 each season - not including the higher wages, which they would not be obligated to pay if they hired outside the program.

Increased scrutiny

Ironically, those who choose to use the H-2A program make themselves more available to public scrutiny than those who choose to skirt the law, said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association. The NCGA was established to help its members more easily navigate the H-2A program.

By law, all migrant housing must be inspected before occupancy and certified for a specific number of beds, but Wicker said non H-2A housing often goes uninspected.

In 2011, the North Carolina Department of Labor certified 16,942 beds, of which 8,844 were H-2A.

But with an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 undocumented agriculture workers in the state, Wicker believes H-2A is disproportionately scrutinized.

"I've seen those numbers," said Regina Cullen, NCDOL's Agricultural Safety and Health bureau chief. "If they give us a referral, if somebody says, 'You need to go here - there's unregistered housing,' we will do it. We can't do it if we don't know about it. ... We don't sort inspection lists by H-2A."

With its greater exposure to government regulation, added cost and more bureaucracy, the program needs reform, said the Daughtrys, recognized by the state as Gold Star Growers for going above and beyond housing standards.

Otherwise, they warned, farmers will resort to other options.

"What incentive do we have to do the right thing?" Debbie Daughtry asks. "Why not go back to illegal workers and if you catch us and penalize us, then oh well."

Wilson Daughtry, on the other hand, sees a shift in operations.

"I'm thinking about quitting altogether," he said. Instead of growing squash, corn and cucumbers, he would switch to grain crops, allowing him to replace people with a tractor.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service