North Carolina has a choice to make: either import workers, or import food, according to to North Carolina Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten, who led a delegation of farmers and industry insiders to meet with the state's congressional Republicans in Washington last week.
The group met with U.S. Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr; and Representatives Ted Budd, George Holding, Mark Meadows and David Rouzer. Farmers and industry leaders asked officials to advocate for a streamlined guest-worker program, as well as a pathway to legal status for undocumented farm workers with work experience.
"We try to hire American workers that want to work,” he said. “There's just aren't enough American workers that want to do those jobs."
Wooten said farmers understand the importance of border security, but they say there needs to be a path toward legalization for experienced, yet undocumented, ag workers. He said that's because many have been on American farms for years and have valuable institutional knowledge.
Wooten said the country's existing H-2A visa program is expensive. That’s the program that offers temporary work visas for foreign agricultural workers on a seasonal basis. Farmers cover fees and transportation for workers, and there's a limit to how many visas are issued.
"The biggest problem with it right now, other than the expense, is it just cannot get the number of workers here through that visa system process that we need in agriculture," Wooten said.
Wooten added that H-2A workers are only able to stay for a season. He said that's okay for certain jobs, like picking strawberries, but dairy and livestock operations need workers year round. Many of the reliable, year-round workers on North Carolina farms are not cleared to work here. Many of these workers were hired using false papers, or had legal status when they began working, but overstayed their visas. And Wooten said now, they don't have a good way to become right with the law.
A better guest worker program is one way to keep knowledgeable workers in place, he said.
"They just need a chance to come out of the shadows and be properly documented and continue to contribute if they haven't you know, broken any laws other than coming here illegally years ago," he said.