Farmers to SC Congressman: Make it easier to hire temporary, legal immigrant workers

Food stability is 'security issue' for nation, South Carolina farmers say

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) invited a group of around 15 current or former farmers to his office in Rock Hill to discuss the future of the 2014 Farm Bill. The bill, which authorizes nutrition and agriculture programs in the United States, is set to e
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Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) invited a group of around 15 current or former farmers to his office in Rock Hill to discuss the future of the 2014 Farm Bill. The bill, which authorizes nutrition and agriculture programs in the United States, is set to e

A group of farmers from the region told U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman on Tuesday that they want him to help create a farm bill that would make it easier to hire legal immigrant workers for temporary agriculture jobs.

Around 15 current or former farmers from South Carolina’s 5th District came to Norman’s Rock Hill office to talk about about the bill’s future. Some came from as far as Lee County, a good number identifying themselves as fourth- or fifth-generation farmers.

The Agricultural Act of 2014, commonly known as the 2014 Farm Bill, has authorized nutrition and agriculture programs in the United States since 2014. The bill is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2018.

Norman said he will use thoughts expressed by his constituents to create a list of priorities in crafting the 2018 Farm Bill.

“Farming’s a big deal in the 5th District,” he said. “I want to get educated. Y’all are on the ground, you know it.”

Sumter County farmer Chris Sumpter said he felt hamstrung by the H-2A visa program, which helps farmers employ qualified foreign national workers for temporary agriculture jobs. Employers must establish that there are no qualified American workers to fill the open positions and that hiring the workers won’t affect American workers’ wages, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

H-2A employers are required to pay inbound and outbound transportation, free housing, and provide meals for their workers. Terms of work can be as short as a month or two or as long as 10 months in some cases, according to the Center for Global Development.

In the past fiscal year, the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce (SCDEW) received 90 H-2A requests from South Carolina farms for 4,698 workers, according to the agency’s spokesperson Robert Bouyea. Some farms may put in multiple requests throughout the year, according to Bouyea.

The SCDEW passes those requests onto the Department of Labor, which then makes the final decision, he said.

Sumpter said the process to request temporary workers from the Department of Labor, which he said can take upwards of eight weeks, puts a strain on a farmer’s already-tight timeline.

“It affects all of us,” he said. “I have eight acres of okra that needs to be processed and only a certain amount of time to do that.”

One unidentified farmer argued that he employed 15-20 people to pick fruits and vegetables at his farm. He said he used the H-2A bill for two or three years, but got tired of it after being fined $600 for having a lightbulb go out in the workers’ temporary housing.

The farmer said he went back to using local workers, but he complained that some local workers don’t often carry much legal documentation.

“We can’t continue to bury our heads in the sand,” he said. “If we don’t get our labor situation solved, most of our food will be imported.”

The House Agriculture Committee reached out to Norman recently in a letter to get a sense of his priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill, and they hope to introduce the updated bill by early spring. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) is the committee chair.

Norman challenged the farmers to dig into the current 2014 Farm Bill and send his office any updates, revisions or changes they would make.

The comprehensive omnibus bill also covers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as “food stamps.” Rock Hill farmer Richard Roach said he has seen “a lot of abuse” in the program and argued that it should be reformed.

“Kids are going hungry because they can’t get the food they need when they go to get groceries,” Roach said. “Why not put a picture of the person on the card so a cashier can see that and stop fraud?”

Norman told the crowd that President Donald Trump would focus on welfare reform soon after a decision comes on a tax cuts bill currently working its way through the Senate. The congressman said he believes there is a “90 percent” chance that the tax cuts bill will pass the Senate and land on Trump’s desk.

He said it is crucial that farmers reach out and let his office know of any specific instances of government overreach ahead of the reauthorization process.

“Tell me what we need to know,” Norman said. “If we don’t tell our side of the story, it won’t get told or it’ll get told wrong.”

David Thackham: 803-329-4066, @dthackham