WASHINGTON — The heated tempers of the nation’s border states are driving the debate over immigration policy. States farther away from the U.S.-Mexico border, though, are reckoning with a different set of challenges: a skimpy agriculture labor market and cumbersome immigrant-worker programs that go unfixed amid partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill.
More than 20,000 U.S. farms employ more than 435,000 immigrant workers legally every year, according to 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census data. Thousands — probably tens of thousands — more are employed illegally. Naturally, agricultural powerhouses near the border, such as Florida and California, employ tens of thousands of seasonal immigrant laborers every year. But deeper in the homeland, such as the fruit orchards of the Carolinas, farmers confront a blue-collar labor vacuum.
“Because we’re not a border state, it’s definitely harder to get people over this far from the border to work,” said Chalmers Carr, the owner of the East Coast’s largest peach grower, South Carolina’s Titan Farms. “2006, 2007, even 2008, we had a very robust economy and there were not enough farmworkers then. And there’s truly not enough farmworkers now, legal or illegal.”
South Carolina in particular has a unique view, having seen the greatest percentage increase in Hispanic population in the country from 2000 to 2010 — nearly 150 percent, according to the most recently available census data. Although its Hispanic population sits at a comparatively low 5.1 percent, the increase reflects decisions by immigrants to make the trek deeper into the U.S. And while many are taking temporary seasonal work, the labor shortage has become a permanent issue for growers and workers alike.
“It’s not a temporary situation,” said Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director of America’s Voice, which focuses on changing immigration policy. “It might be a seasonal job, but we’re going to keep having grapes that need to be picked and cows that need to be milked, and immigrants are coming to do that sort of labor.”
Immigrant workers who slipped over the borders years ago are aging out of the workforce, and their younger, more able-bodied counterparts are being kept from the fields because of the bureaucratic clutter. But the crops and the growing season don’t wait.
“We’re losing that aging population, but we’re also not getting anybody replacing them because of the mess we have at the border and no immigration law,” said Manuel Cunha Jr., the president of California’s Nisei Farmers League, which represents over 180 types of farms, including those that produce raisins, vegetables and flowers.
The trend certainly isn’t limited to the southern edges of the country either.
“In northern Ohio, we’re on the front lines, and it’s not because we’re on the northern border,” said Mark Gilson, the owner and operator of Gilson Gardens, a nursery in northeast Ohio, which relies largely on seasonal immigrant workers. “It’s because the agricultural jobs are here.”
The idea by those on the anti-immigration front that U.S. workers should fill those agriculture jobs is simply out of kilter with reality, the farmers say.
“I get lambasted for why do I hire migrant workers? Why don’t I hire Americans?” Carr said. “I can clearly tell you Americans aren’t out there willing to do these jobs.”
He’s quick to share numbers that back up his claim. From 2010 to 2012, Carr said, he advertised for 2,000 jobs. Only 432 — less than 25 percent — of his applicants were U.S. workers. Then 390 of them never showed up or they quit on the first day.
“About 5 percent of the agriculture jobs needed, you’ll get American workers for. … You’ve got a choice to import your food or you can import your labor to harvest your food,” Carr said.
“Local Americans don’t want to do this work. It’s seasonal; it tends to be low-paying,” agreed Gilson. “People who are on unemployment don’t want to go off unemployment to do this type of work.”
Those realities may be what’s shifting the debate in states that traditionally opposed any immigration restructuring. The support of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for a less-restrictive immigration policy has prompted much criticism from other more conservative Republicans. Such reaction forced him to back off a push to overhaul immigration law during his 2008 bid for the presidential nod. Even those conservative attitudes are changing now, however.
Despite the shift in perception, lawmakers left Washington for the August recess with immigration plans in limbo and little expected to come of them once they return in September and turn their focus to November’s elections.
Away from the partisan politics inside the Beltway, it’s a delay that could wreak havoc for seasonal growers who are limited by complicated federal programs such as the H-2A and I-9 temporary immigrant visas.
Both programs provide passes for immigrants looking to cross the border for seasonal work. But minimum wage and identity requirements make the programs difficult for growers to adhere to, and they can be incentives either to buck the system or to move farms overseas.
“When we need those workers we have to have them, because Mother Nature doesn’t hold up and wait for us to get workers,” said Cunha. “When it’s time to harvest, it’s time to harvest.”
On top of that, South Carolina’s Carr says the recent influx of children slipping across the U.S. border has clogged the bureaucratic process further.
“I don’t know how many problems go on this long without being fixed. … I don’t think businesses such as mine can continue to wait and operate based on what may happen six years from now,” he said.
Despite the heated politics and lawmakers’ seeming unwillingness to address the problem, farmers and experts say people are starting to recognize that any changes in immigration law will have complicated economic and personal effects.
“These aren’t just people with their heads down in the field for us. We respect their hard work, and we share traditional American values with them,” said Gilson, of Ohio. “We’re small businesses, so we tend to be politically conservative. And yet we’re conflicted, in a way, because we need these people and we respect these people.”