Changes in migrant labor lawsin the Deep South are crippling the growth of what should be burgeoning fruit and vegetable industries in the Carolinas.

The cost of legal H2A farm labor is too expensive for most operations and simply unaffordable for start-up farms. The option is to hire illegal workers and hope for the best or to simply get out of the fruit and vegetable business.

Though each state has different laws for migrant workers, changes in one state can have a devastating effect on others. Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, with some of the strictest migrant labor laws in the nation, are pass-through states for workers moving eastward from Mexico and Central America.

Rather than travel through these states and risk legal problems, many simply take another route to find farm labor jobs in other regions. Oftentimes the harsher labor laws come down to risking legal action for the workers’ families, because many travel and work as a family during peak labor seasons.

The borders these families must navigate as they migrate north from Florida begin at the state lines of Alabama and Georgia and continue into South Carolina — three states that have become self-destructively hostile to migrant farm workers and form a barrier to further work opportunities in North Carolina, Virginia and points north.

Caught in the giant net cast by the governors and state legislatures of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina are children with farm worker parents. In Alabama, for example, thousands of school children were kept out of school to prevent them falling prey to new migrant worker laws.

Prior to being delayed, if not stopped permanently, the Alabama immigration law (HB56) required some Alabama school systems to obtain proof of citizenship from children and their parents prior to admitting students. And it required law enforcement officers to stop anyone who ‘appears’ to be illegal.

Georgia’s version of the Arizona-like migrant labor law is HB 87, which requires that certain employers check new workers’ immigration status and gives law enforcement officers more leeway to check a suspect’s immigration status. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed the bill May 13, but, like Alabama’s HB56, it’s being challenged in federal court.

In South Carolina, the state legislature passed S. 20, similar to migrant labor laws passed in Alabama and Georgia. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley at the end of June.

It requires law enforcement to check the immigration status of someone who is arrested for an unrelated reason, if the officer suspects the person is in the country illegally. The South Carolina’s law, effective in January, is similar to Georgia’s, but requires the creation of a specialized police unit to monitor illegal aliens.

South Carolina’s Hispanic population increased 148 percent in the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Census, and Hispanics, mostly of Mexican origin, now make up 5.1 percent of the state’s population.

Though laws in North Carolina and Virginia stop well short of such Draconian measures, they don’t do anything to help alleviate the farm labor shortage — and they don’t offer any assistance for migrant workers to avoid being detained, jailed and deported for simply passing through states with harsher migrant labor laws.

Perhaps the ultimate loser in what has become a legalized shutdown of migrant farm labor is the American public. At best, new labor laws, even revamped H2A laws, are going to create more paperwork and more care in hiring and housing farm labor — all of which will cost farmers more and ultimately raise prices of Southeast-grown fruit and vegetables.

While it requires relatively few people to plant a cropor to manage an existing fruit orchard, it takes large numbers of seasonal laborers to harvest these crops. Knowing how much of which crop to produce is an ongoing challenge for farmers, but nothing compared to figuring what to do with an excess of a crop if labor isn’t available to harvest it.

“We’re looking for alternative sources for our peaches, even for use as biofuels, because we don’t have the labor to pick the crop or to run our packing house,” says a South Carolina peach grower (he doesn’t want his name used because he fears it will bring down investigations of his farming operation and his use of migrant laborers).

The state’s vegetable industry is equally challenged. A Charleston County vegetable grower says he ended up burning 25 percent of his 80-acre tomato crop, because he had no labor for hand picking.

“I could have used 300 pickers,” he says. “I had 40. These people don’t cause any trouble — they just come here to work.” Like the South Carolina peach grower, he fears reprisals and is hesitant to say too much about the labor situation in his state.

Federal lawmakers are making efforts to correct some of the harsher elements of the state laws, but with grudging, if any, support from the states. U.S. Congressman, Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has proposed a bill to Congress to overhaul the H2A program.

He says the current H2A program is not being used by most fruit and vegetable growers. Instead, he contends, these farmers have turned to an estimated 1.1 million illegal immigrants. With the new laws, workers are vanishing from key Southeast production areas at an alarming rate.

Chalmers R. Carr III, a South Carolina peach grower who is president of USA Farmers, a group of employers using H2A workers, says Smith’s bill “positively addresses most every major issue that has been raised by the agricultural industry for many years.”

Carr, who heads Titan Farms at Ridge Spring, S.C., one of the larger peach operations in the Southeast, has been outspoken in his efforts to help find solutions to ongoing labor problems for peach growers in the region.

Unlike their neighbors to the south, North Carolina has taken a comprehensive look at the impact such harsh migrant labor laws would have on the state’s economy. The state is just behind California, Texas, Washington and Florida as the country’s fifth most populous farm worker state. Its tobacco, sweet potato, and rapidly-growing vegetable industries simply couldn’t operate without migrant labor.

A majority of the estimated 200,000 migrant workers who help sustain the state’s agriculture are of Latin descent, and a majority call Mexico home. This labor force is critical to the continued survival and growth of the state’s $2.2 billion tobacco, greenhouse/nursery, vegetable, and fruit industry.

Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, says he was expecting an increase in available farm labor, based on passage of the stringent immigration laws passed in neighboring states. “I thought they would come here to find work and to avoid the states with Arizona-type legislation.

“Though I don’t have any verifiable numbers, my sense is there is a more acute lack of farm labor — though I don’t think it’s all attributable to passage of new laws in other states. The downturn in the economy, especially the housing industry, has forced migrant labor to look to other areas for work. I think it’s a combination of things, but the end result is an increasingly short labor supply for our farmers,” Wicker says.

Debbie Hamrick, who heads the specialty crops program for the North Carolina Farm Bureau, says the lack of legal labor and the expense of using the H2A program has been particularly difficult for growers trying to get into the specialty crop industry in the state.

Like Wicker, Hamrick says she has no hard and fast evidence as to the level of labor shortage or the economic damage it is causing North Carolina. But, she says, visits with farmers and talk by farmers at meetings indicate the shortage is significant and, in many cases, is causing growers to reevaluate how they grow crops.