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Immigration Crisis At Border Afflicts Heartland Harvest

McClatchy Tribune News Service National News Politics

Immigration Crisis At Border Afflicts Heartland Harvest


By Ali Watkins, McClatchy Washington Bureau

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 United States. 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.”

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

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  1. kenndeb August 19, 2014

    Americans should be willing to do those jobs, especially in the current job market where we have the highest unemployment rate since the great depression. I guess it is hard for those getting handouts from the regime to break away from welfare and actually work for their money. Yeah, picking crops and working farms is hard work, but when you need to support your family, it is a job.

    1. Dan McGrew August 25, 2014

      More code work Male Bovine Excrement!!!
      Former president Clinton reduced Arkansas’ welfare roles by nearly half and cut the national welfare burden during his terms. DubYah wrecked the economy, wasted trillions pursuing his personal wars, devastated at least four major industries — and cost us 5-million jobs in his last two years alone.
      “THE REGIME” — has put more than 5-million people back to work and the welfare roles are greatly reduced.
      In Business, without huge government subsidies, DubYah was a bankrupt disaster. Dick Cheney guaranteed huge, ongoing Halliburton stock dividends with the Hundreds of Billions dumped into Halliburton’s pockets under the No Bid Sweetheart contracts Cheney promoted for them. Cheney is the ultimate corporate welfare profiteer.
      Ans some Neo-Con wants to affix a standard DixieCrat/RepubliBIGOT code word label of “The Regime.” for native born citizens refusing to do stoop field labor since 1942!!!!
      Having worked on farms and ranches in at least 20 western states, California to Kansas, Washington to Texas, Illinois to California, Oregon and Washington — I find these urban-myth “X-spurts” laughable.
      They know nothing, but have opinions, based upon ignorance!!!

  2. Dan McGrew August 25, 2014

    Having lived and worked in the Big Farm regions of the west, the DelMarVA Peninsula and Florida — Native Born Americans do not want to perform the stoop labor required in mixed vegetable and berry agriculture.
    When YOU go into the produce section today and find you are paying $189 and more for a pound of any kind of apples — That is a DIRECT result of critical labor shortages in apple orchards — from Pajaro County, CA to the Finger Lakes Region of New York, and especially in the Washington state apple production regions. When less than half the crop is picked for the fresh market and the rest must be mechanically “Shaken Out” for the processed foods market — as consumers, we pay the price.
    There have not been enough native born stoop labor workers willing to work to supply 5% of the need for decades.
    Which is a major reason we are buying South African Citrus, South American grapes, New Zealand apples, tomatoes from Mexico, etc., etc.
    Which means U.S. workers in the industries which once supported American agriculture are out of work.
    Ain’t it wonderful how we showed them Mexicans?
    Now they work in Mexico for $1.00 to $3.00 per day producing the same things for us to eat, they used to produce in Arizona, California, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, etc., etc. for U.S. minimum wage.
    But we showed them and put a million or so native-born citizens out of work in the process.

  3. ralphkr August 25, 2014

    That photo of harvesting with a combine really brought home the huge change in farming from when I lived on a farm. In those days we measured fields by the acre and that picture shows the typical corporation farm with fields measured in square miles. When my father mustered out after WW1 he bought a thresh machine and went halvesies with his much older brother on a kerosene powered tractor and they did custom work in their area (Dad made good money and averaged $4K year). After my father bought his own farm our harvest went as follows. Dad would run the binder (cut and bundled grain) and a crew (mother’s brothers plus neighbors) would follow building shocks. At a later time Dad would set up his thresher and a herd of people would show up to load the shocks onto trailers, haul to the thresher, or tow the trailer full of grain to the granary. Looking back, I guess this was a form of Communism or barter because little money changed hands since the entire shebang would move from farm to farm until everything had been threshed. And this is the reason the largest room in a farm house was the dining room and it had a huge table…takes space to feed 20 or more men on harvest days.


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