|Ag-visa worker Ricardo Almeida harvests cucumbers on|
a North Carolina farm. (News & Observer photo)
Of the estimated 80,000 to 150,000 mostly-Latino workers who toil on North Carolina farms, only a quarter of them—a mix of immigrants and U.S. nationals—live in the state permanently. About half the farm workers are undocumented, and a quarter work legally through the federal H-2A visa program. North Carolina farmers told Iszler they would like to hire American citizens, but must hire foreign laborers because few locals want to do the backbreaking work of farming. Jackie Thompson says there's "no doubt" in his mind that he couldn't keep his farm afloat without immigrants. "The U.S. complains with our mouths full. They want to eat it, but they don't want to pick it," he says. According to a 2013 study by the Center for Global Development, native workers don't generally take farm jobs no matter how bad the economy gets.
Agriculture is an $84 billion industry in North Carolina, so in February local and state politicians met with farmers and the North Carolina Farm Bureau begin determining how to best enact immigration reform in the state without damaging the economy. They are focusing on simplifying the H-2A program and determining an avenue for undocumented farm workers to obtain legal status. "Foreign labor is what provides jobs for U.S. citizens and North Carolina residents working in the agricultural industry," Sen. Thom Tillis told Iszler. "It is hard to overestimate what agriculture means to our state."
Now more than ever, North Carolina farmers are having a hard time filling agriculture jobs. Increased enforcement of illegal immigration laws and a generally slow-recovering economy have caused a decrease in undocumented Mexican workers.
In April, President Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue held a roundtable discussion with farmers and North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler to discuss their concerns, according to Iszler. Trump also created a task force focused on agriculture and rural issues. Though the president has consistently advocated for a wall between Mexico and the U.S. to "stop a lot of people from coming in that shouldn't be here," Perdue said in a speech soon afterward that Trump "understands that there are long-term immigrants, sometimes undocumented immigrant laborers, out here on the farms, many of them that are doing a great job, contributing to the economy of the United States.”