From July 2010 to June 2011 the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina advertised 9,050 jobs openings. Only 752 Americans expressed interest, even though North Carolina’s unemployment rate is above 10 percent.
Short-handed, farmers across the state have resorted to the H-2A visa program, which allows foreigners to work in the United States temporarily. So far this year, NC farmers have acquired 8,547 H-2A visas from Washington, by far the largest number of any state. The lion’s share of these visas have gone to Mexicans.
Controversy over the use of H-2A visas isn’t much of a surprise, but the bedfellows are a little unusual. The South’s generally cohesive bloc of rural conservatives is being fractured, with anti-immigration activists pitted against farmers. Even more incredibly, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a venerated civil rights outfit, is backing the anti-immigration activists.
Wilson Daughtry, a vegetable farmer in Engelhard, N.C., thinks laziness accounts for the lack of American farmhands: “I don’t care if you pay [Americans] $20 an hour, you are not going to get them out here to do this type of work.” He then qualified his statement by saying that occasionally Americans did show up and were offered jobs, but they quit within days.
May Bauer, legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, demurs. “For centuries, Americans have performed agricultural labor,” she insists. In an interview with McClatchy News, she added:
Many workers do not want these jobs at these wages and on these terms [but] if you can’t find workers at the wage you want to pay, then lo and behold there’s this program you can use that allows you to go find people from another country who will desperately want to make a job at $7 or $8 an hour.
The jobs advertised by the ESC paid between $9.30 and $9.59 an hour.
The McClatchy article notes, “Unemployment statistics from the state don’t point to Americans flocking to these jobs.” But from the farmer’s point of view, the lack of interest from American workers paints them into a corner: sponsor H-2A visas or use illegal workers.
Offering more seasonal work visas is a common sense solution to illegal immigration. As Southern farm economies like Georgia and Alabama quake, in part because of harsh immigration laws, one can only hope that North Carolina’s example catches on. The Feds will also need to take note.