Last week, state lawmakers overrode Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of an immigration bill, and that will likely please Johnston County farmers.
In part, the bill triples the period in which seasonal workers do not have to have their immigration status checked under the federal E-Verify program. That program, designed to ensure that all employers hire workers who are here legally, is optional, but some states, including North Carolina, require employers to use it.
North Carolina made E-Verify a requirement in 2011 but did so on a sliding scale. In the first year, the requirement covered only employers with 500 or more workers. The next year, the threshold fell to 100 workers. In July of this year, it fell to 25.
For farmers who hire temporary workers to pick crops, the low threshold created a headache.
“It’s just time consuming,” said Jeffrey Lee, who owns a farm east of Benson.
Lee employs 48 seasonal workers who come from outside of the country on temporary work visas under the federal H2A program. This means he already knows they are in the country legally, making E-Verify redundant.
“I don’t have a secretary,” Lee said. “I do my own check writing, bookkeeping and manage the day-to-day operations as well. It would just be a lot of work on me for something I already know they’re all going to pass anyway.”
In all, Johnston County farmers employ 377 H2A workers, said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the N.C. Growers Association. The county, he added, has another 700 seasonal workers – people who live in the area but work only part of the year; and 1,300 migrant workers – who live elsewhere but come to Johnston to work.
House Bill 786, which McCrory vetoed, extends from 90 days to nine months the period in which seasonal workers do not have to have their immigration status checked. McCrory has said the bill creates a loophole that industries besides agriculture will use to take jobs away from North Carolinians.
But state lawmakers disagreed and overrode McCrory’s veto in two quick votes last week.
The E-Verify extension is especially important to Johnston farmers, county officials say, because of its long growing season.
For most farmers here, the growing season lasts from April to November, or much longer than 90 days, said Bryant Spivey, director of the Johnston County Cooperative Extension Service. Many Johnston farmers, he noted, grow sweet potatoes and tobacco, which require hand labor throughout the summer.
E-Verify touches on another ongoing labor problem in agriculture.
“So farmers have an eight-month time period where they need a lot of workers,” Spivey said. They don’t need those workers the other four months and can’t afford to keep them on the payroll, he said.
“That hinders that grower’s ability to hire local labor,” Spivey said. “There’s just not local labor that’s willing to work on our farms in a seasonal manner.”
Jonathan Phillips, a senior lecturer in agricultural and resource economics at N.C. State University, said the domestic labor market has essentially broken down, and its solution is bringing in workers from other countries, legal or not.
“The economic market forces have simply created a solution to the labor shortage,” he said. “Some of it’s legal, some of it’s not, but there’s a market there.”
E-Verify doesn’t solve this problem, Phillips said. Instead, it just makes finding farm workers harder while not adding more legal options, he said.
Checking someone through E-Verify involves a lot of paperwork, Phillips said, and that can be overwhelming for farmers with lots of temporary employees.
He said farmers also have to take time to understand the system, which is complicated. “The harder you make it for people to do something legally, the more attractive illegal options look,” he said.
Phillips added that E-Verify is not always accurate. He said he has seen the system reject people who are able to work legally in the country. The burden is on the employee to confirm his identity, which requires a lot of effort and substantial paperwork, he said.
E-Verify doesn’t decrease illegal immigration, Phillips said, because people in this country illegally will migrate to states that don’t require E-Verify or don’t vigorously enforce it.
“All it does is it means (immigrants) are going to go elsewhere in the country, and North Carolina isn’t going to be able to harvest the crops,” he said.
Wicker, of the Growers Association, said passage of House Bill 786 is good but doesn’t address the main labor issue.
“This changing from 90 days to nine months doesn’t add one single worker to the mix,” he said. The solution, he said, lies with the federal government, which needs to fix the guest-labor program on a national level.