NASHVILLE TENNESSEAN

July 18, 2017

 

Amid Trump's immigration crackdown, demand for migrant workers increases in Tennessee

 

By Jamie McGee

 

BUMPUS MILLS, Tenn. — Each spring, Stewart County farmer Charlie Hancock advertises in three states to hire U.S.-born workers who will help him harvest tobacco.

He has learned to keep his expectations low. Responses are rare, and if Hancock ever does get a call, local candidates often fail to show up for an interview or for the first day.

“I need a reliable workforce that I can depend on,” Hancock said. “That’s going to have to come from another country, mainly Mexico.”

Hancock is among a growing number of Tennessee farmers who rely on seasonal migrant workers to staff farms. Without this workforce, he would not be able to produce his crops, he said. 

Demand for migrant workers has increased significantly in the past year as a crackdown on illegal immigration has escalated under President Donald Trump. 

n Tennessee, the number of seasonal workers approved for H-2A visas jumped 28 percent this fiscal year to 8,565, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor. In the U.S., there was a 30 percent increase in the number of workers requested through the visa program in the first two quarters of 2017.

The problem with the guest worker program is that it is expensive, time consuming and burdensome for farming families already struggling to maintain farms and profit margins, said Tennessee Farm Bureau President Jeff Aiken.

The bureau supports immigration reform that would improve the guest worker program while increasing border security to ease the pressure on Tennessee farmers. Aiken said, personally, he also would like to see undocumented farm workers, with no criminal backgrounds, secure legal status to address the labor shortage. 

There is, in some instances, a misconception out there that all migrants are bad,” Aiken said. “If folks won’t take the jobs, what do you do? It’s very important that we have this ability to bring folks in who want to do the jobs. They are filling jobs that people here have no interest or desire to do.”

While farmer demand for H-2A visas has been steadily growing, the 2017 growth has outpaced recent annual increases. Farmers are likely reacting to immigration enforcement policies under the Trump administration, said American Farm Bureau Federation Director of Energy and Environment Paul Schlegel.

Arrests of illegal immigrants increased by 38 percent in the first three months of 2017 and border crossings have declined for six straight months through April. The shifts in immigration follow heated rhetoric surrounding immigration during the most recent presidential campaign. As a candidate, Trump pointed to immigrants as a threat to U.S. workers and made “build the wall” a signature campaign rallying cry.

"The approach of this administration is a different approach. There is no question about that," Schlegel said. "Farmers are probably anxious about making sure they are not going to be in a situation where they need labor and they are not going to have it."

 

Ensuring food sources for U.S. consumers

In Tennessee, there are nearly 70,000 farming operations and the sector contributes more than $52 billion to the state's economy, according to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the University of Tennessee's Institute of Agriculture. Farming and agriculture production employs more than 350,000 Tennesseans.

For Aiken, the farm labor shortage is a matter of food security. If the U.S. farming sector is not sustainable, American consumers will be increasingly reliant on imported foods and they will have less control over how it is produced.

“We are kind of at a crossroads now, where we either make the decision, do we want to allow workers to come in to help produce our food here in this country, or do we want to import our food into the country?” Aiken said.

Tennessee Department of Labor spokesman Chris Cannon said the visa program is the "most highly audited and regulated program" for U.S. employers to ensure migrant workers are not taken advantage of. A farmer must contract with a local agent, apply to the U.S. Department of Labor and pass a housing inspection conducted by state officials before the federal department approves an application. As part of that process, farm operators must also prove that domestic workers are not available. 

But the costs, the paperwork and the uncertainty of whether workers will be approved in time for harvest made the program too cumbersome, he said. He decided instead to represent farmers.

Nearly 50 percent of farm laborers are foreign-born, and of crop workers, about half are not authorized to be in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Immigration reform efforts in 2013 included a push for more permanent workers by granting legal status for those in the agricultural industry. Those changes failed to materialize, but the American Farm Bureau Federation continues to advocate for legal status for experienced, yet unauthorized farm workers in the U.S, and for a less rigid and less bureaucratic guest worker system. As it stands, some farming niches, including dairy, are excluded from the H-2A program.

"You need a program that is very flexible that meets the needs of all growers," Schlegel said. "In the short term, we need stability and security of our existing workforce."

 

Relying on the H-2A program

Hancock turned to the H-2A visa program eleven years ago, wanting to ensure he was not breaking the law by hiring undocumented workers. At the time, he was hiring immigrants showing green cards, having given up on local workers. 

“Twenty years ago, it got down to me and two guys,” Hancock said. “It was either close shop or find us some help.”

Through the H-2A program, Hancock spends about $1,100 per worker on H-2A visa fees and transportation costs each year, and he has built a bunkhouse for his 12 workers that is inspected annually by state officials. There are requirements on square footage per worker, bed height and window space that he must adhere to.

“It’s the only legal system we have of getting these workers,”Hancock said. “It’s not the best, but it’s the best there is out there.”

While Hancock has embraced the program, he understands why farmers who have not participated might feel overwhelmed by both the cost and the regulation. He and his wife, Jennifer Hancock, begin submitting H-2A applications each January to ensure workers from Mexico begin to arrive in April, and Jennifer updates paperwork throughout the application process and growing season.

Last year, the Hancock's applications were not being approved in time, so they reached out to Tennessee lawmakers to check on the process. This year, Hancock asked for two workers to come a month earlier than necessary to safeguard against delays. 

“With perishable crops, that time is of the essence,” he said.

Seventy-two percent of farms experienced delays and those delays lasted 22 days on average, leading to a loss of nearly $170 million for farms, according to a National Council of Agricultural Employers 2010 survey.

“If you are sitting here waiting for your workers to come and for whatever reason they are detained or there are issues, then farmers are at risk of losing their livelihood,” Aiken said.

 

 

Making the trek to Tennessee

Jhony Aguila, 29, spent a week traveling by bus through Tepic, Guadalajara and Monterrey, Mexico, to work on the Hancock farm, as he has done for the past decade. The nearly $11 he earns per hour dwarfs the $8 he would make in a day in his hometown, Arrayanes.

Aquila arrived in Bumpus Mills in April and will leave in December, communicating with his wife and four children in Arrayanes by cell phone and Facebook. On most nights, he and other migrant workers sit in cars and trucks outside a nearby barn, where service is greatest, to call home or get online.  

"Graduation is today," Aguila said of his 13-year-old daughter on a morning in June.

A picture of Aguila's grandfather rests on his mirror, near a framed picture of his youngest daughter, who is one and a half. Above his bunk, which he sections off with a wall of blankets, hang two Chicago Bulls hats he bought in Clarksville.

Hancock tries to hire the same workers each year. It deepens relationships and also cuts down on training, he said. He has traveled three times to Arrayanes to visit his workers. There, he stayed with Aguila’s family, met his children and recruited others.

Gary Hutchison, Hancock’s only local worker, has worked on the Hancock farm for two decades and said the seasonal employees have changed the farm workforce “for the better.” While Stewart County's unemployment has fluctuated between 6 and 15 percent in the past seven years, finding a replacement for them would be impossible, he said.

“We need them,” Hutchison said. “You cannot round up 10 boys around here that would want to work the kind of work we do.”

 

H-2A in Tennessee:

2014-2015: 6,613 workers

2015-2016: 6,692 workers

2016-2017: 8,565 workers

Source: Tennessee Department of Labor

 

 

 

 

H-2A requests for U.S. farms

2017, first six months: 99,816 positions

2016: 172,654

2015: 145,874

2014: 123,528

2013: 105,735

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

 

Tennessee Agriculture by the numbers:

67,300 farming operations

350,000 jobs

10.9 million acres of farmland

Source: Tennessee Agriculture Department