July 10, 2014

SC farmers call on Congress to reform immigration laws

A coalition of business leaders representing the tourism, agricultural and manufacturing industries called on Congress Wednesday to reform immigration laws.

A coalition of business leaders representing the tourism, agricultural and manufacturing industries called on Congress Wednesday to reform immigration laws.

At news conferences in Rock Hill, Charleston, and 58 other locations across 24 states, speakers asked the U.S. House of Representatives to take action on a bill passed by the Senate more than a year ago.

The coalition offered no specific proposals for reform. The issue, they said, is economic because businesses as varied as farms and restaurants are unable to find U.S. citizens willing to do the required work.

“Your food will be picked by an immigrant,” said Bob Hall, owner of the Bush-N-Vine in York. “The question is whether the food is grown here or in a Third World country.”

Ron Edwards, manager of Springs Farm in Fort Mill, said, “This is not just two dirt farmers complaining. It’s a big problem.”

Hall and Edwards were among the speakers at the Rock Hill meeting, held at the Rock Hill/York County Airport Wednesday morning.

Rock Hill and Charleston were selected as South Carolina sites for the national rally because U.S. Reps. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land and Mark Sanford, Republicans who represent the 5th and 1st Congressional Districts, respectively, have been willing to address the immigration issue, said Shell Suber of the Partnership for a New American Economy.

“Congressman Mulvaney understands this and has been very vocal about the need to fix our immigration system,” Suber said. “We are here today to say that the business community in South Carolina will stand with our delegation members who take this up.”

Political pressure has been cited as one reason Congress may not address the issue before the mid-term elections in November.

Hall and Edwards spoke about the lack of local residents willing to pick their crops. The two farmers have taken different approaches to find workers.

Edwards uses the the federal H-2A temporary agricultural worker program to have people harvest the Springs Farm peaches, vegetables and berries.

Through an employment broker, Edwards asked for 10 workers starting Jan. 1 to prune the peach trees and prepare the fields. He also asked for an additional 10 workers starting in April to help with the harvest.

Ten workers arrived from Mexico in January, but only five arrived three weeks ago to help with the harvest, leaving him five people short.

The shortage of workers meant some strawberries were left to rot, Edwards said. “I lost money because I couldn’t get the crops picked.”

“Local people won’t do this type of work,” Edwards said.

He uses his H-2A workers seven days a week. He pays them $9.75 an hour, provides them housing and transportation, and the $1,000 round-trip airfare.

Edwards said he has tried to hire locally, but many local workers can’t pass the required drug tests.

Hall said he once used H-2A workers but found the program was too bureaucratic and unreliable.

Hall now hires locally. He needs between 15 and 20 workers during the spring and summer to help farm his 100 acres. Hall said he pays “well above minimum wage,” but declined to release a specific wage.

The work requires people in their 20s and 30s, “and we work them six days a week,” Hall said.

Labor is a farm’s single biggest cost, Hall and Edwards said.

Higher labor costs usually result in higher prices. The average cost of a peck of peaches this season is between $15 and $16, Hall said.

The two farmers called upon Congress to do something.

Hall and Edwards said they hope Wednesday’s rallies show Congress there is a groundswell of support to act. “This is not a Democratic or Republican issue; it’s an American issue,” Edwards said.

A recent poll by the Partnership for a New Economy, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers found than 82 percent of Americans want Congress to act on immigration reform this year. Sixty-five percent said the president’s unwillingness to enforce immigration laws is not a reason to delay immigration reform.

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