Last night I happened to find myself chatting with Senator Fred Smith (R-Johnston) about agriculture and illegal immigration. It surprised me to learn from Senator Smith, who is also running for governor, that agriculture is still the leading industry in North Carolina, contributing almost $70 billion to the state’s economy and employing over 20 percent of the work force.
As I pointed out to Senator Smith, though, it’s difficult to run a farm these days without feeling that you have to hire illegal immigrants. It’s not that these good folks –- salt of the earth –- want to hire illegal or “undocumented” workers, it’s that they think they have to in order to stay profitable. I suppose, though, that Fred Smith could make the same excuse about any of his housing developments. As a resident of Hedingham, I can personally testify that the Fred Smith Company doesn’t hire illegal aliens to do maintenance and groundskeeping on their properties. Yet the company doesn’t seem to have any problem finding and keeping qualified laborers.
In any case, the real question we have to ask is whether farmers have to break the law (by hiring illegal immigrants) to stay in business. According to the National Council of Agricultural Employers, the answer is yes. According to Fred Smith, the answer is no. In this regard, Senator Smith mentioned the need to improve the federal H-2A program. The H-2A program permits U.S. farms to hire what are referred to as “nonimmigrant workers (H-2A workers) to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.” In order to participate in the program employers must certify that they have not only attempted to fill seasonal positions with U.S. citizens, but are also attempting “to engage in the positive recruitment of U.S. workers.” All workers must be paid at the highest of the following rates: the Adverse Effect Wage Rate [AEWR], which is $9.02 an hour for North Carolina, the state minimum wage ($6.15 an hour in North Carolina), or the local prevailing wage. Hence, in North Carolina agricultural workers enrolled in the H-2A program are generally paid at least $9.02 an hour, or $18,761 a year (2,080 hours).
Now, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average median hourly wage for farmworkers and laborers in North Carolina is $7.88 an hour. For this reason, not a few farmers are hesitant to use the H-2A program, which would force them to pay significantly higher wages than the state average.
This past August, however, the Bush administration announced that it would be streamlining the H-2A (and related H-2B) programs as part of the Border Security and Immigration Administrative Reform initiative. In addition to making the program easier to use, the White House is requiring employers to electronically verify worker documentation (better known as the “no-match rule”).
To this reform, we might suggest two more. First, petition the federal government to suspend the AEWR rate for H-2A employees and replace this rate with the local prevailing wage, so long as this wage does not fall below the state minimum wage. Second -– and more likely in the short-term -– use money from the Golden LEAF Foundation (tobacco settlement money) to create a fund that agricultural employers can use to hire workers under the H-2A program.
Finally, none of this will do any good … until we Secure the Border.