U.S. Congressman, Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, proposed a bill to Congress to overhaul the H-2A program.

Congressman Smith says the current H-2A 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, these workers are vanishing from key Southeast production areas at an alarming rate.

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.

North Carolina trails California, Texas, Washington and Florida to be the country’s fifth most populous farm worker state. The state’s 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 industry are of Latin descent, and a majority call Mexico home.

This labor force is critical to the continued survival, much less growth, of the state’s $2.2 billion tobacco, greenhouse-nursery, vegetable, and fruit industry.

Lee Wicker, who is deputy director for 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,” Wicker notes.

“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 H-2A 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 on the level of labor shortage or the economic damage it is causing North Carolina. She says visits with farmers and talk by farmers at meetings indicates the shortage is significant and causing growers to reevaluate how they grow crops in many cases.

rroberson@farmpress.com