Trump’s immigration crackdown is hurting NC farmers

President Trump has declared an emergency at the southern border that many say isn’t an emergency at all. But the president’s alarm is creating an emergency in North Carolina. The problem here isn’t too many illegal immigrants, it’s too few.

The lack of laborers has hit farmers whose crops can’t be harvested by machines. They need hired hands that can pick without damaging such crops as tobacco, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, lettuce, strawberries, blackberries and Christmas trees. But Trump’s demand for a massive border wall, his accusations that many Hispanic immigrants are criminals and the rounding up of undocumented immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents has dried up the supply of migrant workers.

“I know in Eastern North Carolina, there are not any illegal workers,” said Pender Sharp, who grows tobacco, sweet potatoes, corn and soybeans on is 4,000-acre farm in Sims in Wilson County. “Twenty years ago they were driving up in your driveway looking for work but that’s not happening anymore.”

The flow of undocumented migrant workers has been slowing for years under tighter border enforcement policies adopted by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — and because of improvements in the Mexican economy. But Trump’s rhetoric, the separation of families at the border and ICE arrests have discouraged migrant workers from coming to the U.S. and intimidated undocumented immigrants who are living in the U.S. from working where they might be arrested and deported.

In addition, Trump’s trade policies have sharply reduced foreign demand for tobacco and soybeans, which means fewer agricultural jobs to attract migrant workers to make the trip from Mexico.

In response, growers are increasingly seeking workers through the federal government’s guest worker program that issues H-2A temporary work visas. Lee Wicker, deputy director of North Carolina Growers Association, said about 25 percent of the 80,000 farm workers in North Carolina have H-2A visas. Nationally, requests for workers through the program have climbed from 66,000 in 2012 to 243,000 last year.

But the H-2A program requires growers to provide transportation from Mexico, free housing and to pay a minimum wage set by a formula. This year in North Carolina, the minimum wage for H-2A workers jumped from $11.46 an hour to $12.25.. The higher labor costs — compounded by the effects of Trump’s trade policies and two recent hurricanes — are driving growers out of business.

Wicker estimates that 20 percent of his association’s 700 growers will give up farming this year. “The all-time record high for farm income was in 2014. In 2018, it was half of that,” he said.

What’s needed, Wicker said, are changes in immigration policy that let workers flow more easily into the U.S. to work and go home when the harvest is done. Making it harder to come and go, he said, is making it harder to find workers and to pay them.

“We can have a wall, if that’s what the America people want, but we need big doors,” he said.

The situation is so serious even farm worker advocates have asked that the rise in hourly H-2A pay be frozen. Justin Flores, vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina, said his union wants workers treated well, but it also needs farms to stay in business to employ them.

“We’re trying to figure out a way they can still treat workers with respect and pay fair wages and still stay in business, and that’s getting more difficult by the day,” he said.

Flores said the root of the farm worker problem is a failure to support the role of foreign seasonal laborers. “The refusal to admit that the entire food system relies on undocumented workers allows politicians to scapegoat them as a drain on the economy,” he said, “but in many cases they are the backbone of the economy.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com