USA First Look

Worried by talks of deportation, farmers defend immigrant workforce

Migrant workers have helped fill the gaps in domestic labor shortages in agricultural communities for years. Without these workers, farmers say they would be unable to maintain their operations. 

In this March 9, 2018 photo, South African immigrants Malcolm Fourie, (l) and Johan Oosthuizen disconnect a hose after pumping fertilizer into a sprayer in Iredell County, N.C.on March 9, 2018. The H2-A program, which was established in 1986, allows foreign workers to function legally on United States farms for part of the year. Mr. Fourie, has traveled to work on a US farm every year since 2015.
Ryan Revock/Record & Landmark/AP
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  • Chloe Moores
    Statesville Record & Landmark/Associated Press

He's now an Iredell County agriculture worker. But 10 years ago this month, he was embarking on a journey to leave Mexico and cross the United States border in hopes of giving his family a better life.

The journey nearly killed him.

It was March 2008 when the worker, who the Record & Landmark is not identifying because he is undocumented, decided to make the trip from Vera Cruz, Mexico to North Carolina.

Like many immigrants trying to sneak across the border, he paid "coyotes" – members of a mafia-like group who smuggle people into the US from Mexico – a hefty fee. In his case, the price was $5,000.

After several weeks of travel by car, the coyotes "sold" the worker to a drug cartel. He then had two options: pay the cartel thousands of dollars or die.

He was kept in a house in Atlanta for a week-and-a-half.

"They threatened me," he recalled. "But one day they were having like a party and in the morning when I couldn't hear any noises, I escaped."

Even now, as he works on an Iredell County farm, he has never escaped the daily fear of being returned to a country where power-hungry drug cartels get their way and there is little opportunity for him.

Labor shortage

The fear of deportation is one many migrant workers share, but they're not alone. Farmers nationwide – including in Iredell – worry about losing the low-cost labor that helps their farms thrive. That's why they're fighting immigration-law changes that threaten much of their workforce.

The latest US Department of Labor Agricultural Worker's Survey found that one-third of the nation's agriculture workers are from Mexico, and half are not authorized to work in this country.

Linda Andrews, national legislative director for the N.C. Farm Bureau, said the lack of domestic labor has been an issue in the agriculture community for years. Migrant workers have helped fill the gaps.

"Without those skilled workers, the farmers are unable to maintain their operation," Ms. Andrews said.

Work programs available to migrant farm workers include the H2-A program, which was established in 1986 and has been the only work program offered to migrant farm workers. It allows foreign workers to function legally on US farms for part of the year.

McLain Farms co-owner Phillip McLain has used the H2-A program for the past three years. He works with an agency to bring South African workers to North Carolina. They usually work at McLain Farms from mid-February to mid-December.

South African workers are a good fit for Mr. McLain because most of them grew up on farms, are highly skilled, and have post-secondary education, McLain said. Working on a farm in South Africa is a dangerous occupation.

"I think there's been 200-and-something farmers killed this year by rebels [in South Africa]," McLain said. "To work on a farm there and do these things these guys are passionate for might mean you lose your life. They can come over here and not have to worry about that."

Obtaining H2-A visas can be an expensive and lengthy process. McLain pays for his workers' flights to and from the US He also has to fill out lots of paperwork, go through inspections and wait two to three months after submitting everything to get the OK from both governments.

Despite the lengthy process, McLain said using the H2-A program is worth it because he knows he'll have the farm help he needs.

"It's hard to compete in the job market for good people because the hours of farming are longer," he explained. "An average day when we're in the heat of the season could go from 12 to 14 hours for six days a week."

That's no problem for Malcolm Fourie, who has traveled to work on McLain Farms every year since 2015.

"You guys pay a lot better than South Africa," Mr. Fourie said.

Working without a permit

The H2-A program does not extend to livestock farms and dairy operations because the work is year-round.

Doug Carrigan, owner of Carrigan Farms, employs an undocumented Salvadoran who came to the US about 30 years ago.

"I'm really the only family he has here," Mr. Carrigan said. "If he wants to borrow money, I say, 'OK, you can have it,' and he always pays me back. They come because we provide good wages and good conditions [that are] better than [Mexico]."

President Trump's promised border wall won't stop migrant workers from coming across the border, he added.

"The real crux of it is these Mexican guys want to come up here to work, make money, and build a better life for themselves back home," Carrigan said. "If there was a program where they could come up, work and go back home, that's all anyone wants."

Carrigan doesn't believe there will be mass deportation from the US because many farms wouldn't survive without undocumented workers.

"If we tackle it straight up and say, 'Hey, here's a method for it to work seamlessly for the Mexican people and American people and we both win,' it can work," he said. "You don't have to like farmers, but don't complain with your mouth full" of their food.

Possible Solutions

Rep. Rena Turner worked with other North Carolina legislators to propose a driver's license ID bill in 2013 that would give migrant farm workers the ability to drive trucks on the job.

"Our farmers' most legitimate concern is that our farm workers need to able to drive without getting stopped," Ms. Turner said.

The provision died when it was stripped from a larger bill.

"When I first came into office there was a lot of talk against immigration bills in general, and I think it generally stems from the 9/11 plane incidents because [Americans] felt like our border was not secure," Turner said. "Not only were Mexicans coming in or Latinos, but [Americans] were concerned about terrorists coming over the border, also which is another good reason to build the wall."

US Rep. Bob Goodlatte, (R) of Virginia and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has proposed a more expansive replacement of the H2-A program that would allow year-round agricultural operations to legally employ migrant workers. The American Farm Bureau is among organizations supporting the plan.

But legislative movement on immigration has stalled since  Mr. Trump's March 5 deadline passed for replacing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In September 2017, Trump set March 5 as the end date for DACA, which allows undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children to remain here if they are working or going to school.

Federal courts are reviewing legal challenges to Trump's action.

Here in Iredell, while fear of deportation looms over the Mexican man who nearly died crossing the border 10 years ago, he is motivated by a desire to make a better life for his 10-year-old son, who is an American citizen.

"We are not here to steal or do anything illegal," he said. "We are just here to have a better future and work hard. We are human beings and we are not here to hurt anybody. We should all be treated the same way because we are here to have a better life for our families."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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