Every April, about 30 immigrants board a bus in Mexico and travel nearly 2,000 miles to Jackie Thompson’s farm in Rolesville, where they harvest roughly 600,000 pounds of tobacco.
It’s an agreement that can help everyone involved: Immigrants need money to provide for their families, and Thompson needs help to run his 900-acre farm. Every year he sells tobacco, 18,000 pounds of soybeans, 25 bushels of wheat and 10,000 bushels of cucumbers to tobacco companies and commercial food producers.
About 80,000 farm workers – primarily Latino migrants and immigrants as well as U.S. natives – toil on farms in North Carolina, where agriculture still plays a major role, according to the N.C. Farm Bureau. Advocacy groups put that number closer to 150,000.
Roughly half are undocumented immigrants, although many have been living in North Carolina for decades, according to the bureau. About 25 percent come to work in the U.S. temporarily through the federal H-2A visa program.
Only one-fourth of the state’s farm workers, a mix of immigrants and U.S. nationals, live in North Carolina permanently.
They are an invisible workforce that props up North Carolina’s $84 billion agriculture industry.
“Foreign labor is what provides jobs for U.S. citizens and North Carolina residents working in the agricultural industry,” said Senator Thom Tillis. “It is hard to overestimate what agriculture means to our state.”
President Donald Trump, who promises to tighten immigration rules, has said immigrants are taking too many jobs from U.S. natives. But some North Carolina farmers say they can’t find enough locals to work in their fields, where the hours are long and the sun is unrelenting, so they must rely on foreign labor.
Without immigrants, Thompson couldn’t run his farm.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Thompson, 66, said. “The U.S. complains with our mouths full. They want to eat it, but they don’t want to pick it.”
In February, Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau, and a group of farmers met with Tillis, Sen. Richard Burr, Rep. George Holding, Rep. David Rouzer, Rep. Ted Budd and Rep. Mark Meadows, all Republicans, to discuss immigration reform, simplifying the H-2A program and determining an avenue to legal status for undocumented farm workers.
Wooten describes immigration reform as a “three-legged stool”: the first leg represents border security to ensure “we know who’s in the country” and the second leg involves developing an H-2A program that supplies dependable labor year-round.
“The third leg is where the wheel runs off and the divergence starts: What do you do with illegal immigrants?” Wooten said. “It’s a tremendous cost to the economy because this immigration issue is not resolved.”
The messages on immigration reform from the White House have been mixed. In April, Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue hosted a roundtable, which included N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, to address farmers’ concerns. Trump also signed an executive order creating a task force focused on agriculture and rural issues.
Before signing the order, Trump directed Perdue and other Cabinet members to “identify and eliminate unnecessary regulations that hurt our nation’s farmers and rural communities,” but later reiterated that a wall between the U.S. and Mexico would be built to “stop a lot of people from coming in that shouldn’t be here.”
Several days later, Harvest Public Media reported that Perdue told listeners at a speaking engagement 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.”
Locals don’t apply
Victoriano Rodriguez, who is living near Calypso, has been coming to the U.S. from Mexico through the H-2A program, a federal program that brings foreign nationals to the U.S. to work in agriculture temporarily, for 16 years.
“People in the cities can’t do this type of job,” he said.
Employers apply for a temporary labor certification for H-2A workers from the U.S. Department of Labor and then file petitions for workers with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. After the petitions are approved, prospective workers from roughly 85 approved countries outside the U.S. apply for H-2A visas at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad.
Workers generally remain in America for 10 months or less before returning to their home country. If an employer wants a worker to return the next year, they can request that their visa be renewed.
There’s no cap on the number of H-2A visas issued annually. More than 134,000 were issued last year – an increase of 321 percent from 2005 and the highest number of H-2A visas ever, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
“If it wasn’t for the H-2A program, my son and I would not be here,” Thompson said.
Before they can hire workers through the program, farmers must first try to recruit locally. But many say they don’t have much luck.
“We just don’t have the local labor here to work the farms,” Wooten said. “We wouldn’t be able to run without immigrant labor. It’s that simple, and it’s a lot more than just agriculture.”
A 2013 study by the Center for Global Development analyzed more than a decade’s worth of data from North Carolina farms and found that “no matter how bad the economy becomes, native workers do not take farm jobs.”
In 2011, the state had about 489,000 unemployed residents and roughly 6,500 available jobs in agriculture through the North Carolina Growers Association, the biggest employer of H-2A workers in the United States. Only 268 U.S. natives applied, and 163 showed up for the first day of work. More than half quit by the end of the first month, and only seven people completed the growing season.
In contrast, 90 percent of all Mexican farm workers hired through the Growers Association in 2011 remained through the end of the season.
In any given week, native workers are 30 times more likely to quit the job than Mexican workers, according to the Center for Global Development.
Seasonal H-2A workers create jobs for Americans, Michael Clemens, an economist at the center, wrote in the report.
About 7,000 seasonal workers hired by the state Growers Association in 2012 added between $248 million and $371 million to North Carolina’s economy – gains that created one job for a U.S. worker for every 3 to 4.6 H-2A workers in the state.
“The picture is clear: farms will not get the labor they need from natives alone,” Clemens wrote. “Without foreign seasonal workers, whole subsectors of agriculture would not exist in North Carolina today.”
While the H-2A program provides a legal avenue for farmers to find workers, some say it’s expensive, fraught with complex regulations and fails to meet their labor needs because there aren’t enough H-2A workers.
The U.S. Department of Labor sets a minimum wage for H-2A workers. In North Carolina, that wage is $11.27 an hour – well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Farmers who use the program are also required to provide transportation and housing for the workers. Thompson said the program costs him about $500,000 a year, but he wants to do things the right way.
Many farmers skip the program all together and hire immigrants who aren’t in the country legally. They’re technically supposed to pay the minimum wage, but without government oversight it’s easier to get away with paying less and workers must find their own places to live.
Wage theft is a common issue for farm workers, especially those who are undocumented. Workers who voice their concerns run the risk of retaliation from growers or contractors who may fire them or decide not to hire them the following year. They could also be deported.
“It doesn’t cost them as much and they can take advantage (of workers),” Thompson said of farmers. “They don’t have to go through rules and regulations.”
Struggle for survival
North Carolina lost more than 140,000 farms between 1959 and 2012 – a 73 percent drop – because of rising costs, increased exports and dwindling available land.
Remaining farms have expanded to grow more crops, and the decline of small family-operated farms has led to fewer, but larger, corporate farms.
With the rise of machinery and the decline of farming, the need for workers has also decreased over time. Over the last century the average number of hired farm workers in the U.S. decreased from about 3.4 million to just over 1 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But the labor pool is also drying up. Many farm workers are Mexican, but 1 million Mexicans and their families left the U.S. for Mexico from 2009 to 2014, according to a Pew Research Center report. Increased enforcement of immigration laws and the economy’s tepid recovery after the Great Recession may have contributed to the decline, researchers wrote.
Farmers are relying more heavily on the guest-worker program. North Carolina alone accounted for 12 percent of H-2A visa requests in 2010-2011, according to the Brookings Institution.
As the Triangle becomes more urban, many children of farmers are opting for careers outside agriculture. Some families who have been farming for generations might decide to sell their land to developers who build shopping centers and subdivisions.
Last year, a developer bought about 90 acres of land that Thompson used to rent in northern Wake County.
“I’m very nostalgic,” he said. “The last two years, it’s been sort of traumatic here.”
Though it’s hard being away from his family, Rodriguez said there are few employment opportunities in Mexico. He plans to keep coming back to the U.S. for as long as he can, but wonders whether the program and the country’s view of immigrants will change under Trump.
“Sometimes we as workers can’t have opinions on the American laws,” Rodriguez said. “We want people to understand that we benefit this country, and more specifically, this state.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler