Urgent Calls For Comprehensive Immigration Reform By NC Farmers

Urgent Calls For Comprehensive Immigration Reform By NC Farmers

3:27pm Mar 02, 2017
Workers on a field in King, N.C. hand-pick the leaves off the stalk of a tobacco plant. EMILY MCCORD/WFDD

North Carolina ranks eighth in the nation for farming income. Most farmworkers are foreign-born, and nearly half of the roughly 80,000 farmworkers in North Carolina are here in the country illegally.

The Trump administration’s plans for more aggressive immigration law enforcement has many local farmers renewing calls for comprehensive immigration reform. A delegation of North Carolina Farm Bureau leaders, and local farmers recently traveled to Washington D.C. to tell state lawmakers: "We need more workers, and they need to be here legally." 

"What won’t work is this notion that you can somehow send everybody home and keep these industries alive. The industries will crash," says Craig Regelbrugge, Senior Vice President of AmericanHort, the country’s largest horticulture association.

But he says he sees common ground across the political aisle. Regelbrugge shared his thoughts on immigration issues and possible paths forward in an interview with WFDD's David Ford.

Interview Highlights

On the history behind removing undocumented workers from the country:

In 1964, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations dismantled what was at the time a legal, bilateral labor program that existed with Mexico. What the proponents for eliminating the program believed is that by getting rid of foreign workers, Americans would get more jobs, and wages would rise. The analysis shows that neither happened. A third of the workforce was removed and wages did not rise. What did happen was that farmers changed what they were farming. They figured out how to mechanize certain tasks. So, there was a response, but the response was not that Americans returned to the fields.

On farmworker wages in North Carolina:

I think the greatest myth out there is that workers are being hired and paid sub-minimum wages under the table. For folks in North Carolina who are using the existing, although very difficult, visa program known as H2A, the absolute minimum wage that must be paid is $11.27 an hour, which is substantially above federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour). The fact picture is that these workers are being hired on the books. They’re having the same payroll taxes, social security, Medicare, and so forth withheld from their paychecks as we are. They won’t receive benefits from those withholdings — my grandmother will, but the workers themselves won’t — but they’re being paid market-based wages that are typically well above minimum wages as a result.  

On dealing with North Carolina’s foreign-born workforce:

Much of the workforce we’re talking about has been here for a long time. They are aging. They are increasingly settled. They have families. They are absolutely intertwined in our society. So, I think North Carolina would really benefit from some sort of an approach that regularizes or legitimizes the presence of these people, and ensures that they’re properly authorized to work and live by all the same rules that we are. With respect to the future, we need a streamlined visa program that’s more responsible and reliable than the one that we have, and nowhere do we need that worse than in agriculture.












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