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North Carolina farmers push for visa reform for immigrants

Farming constitutes a significant part of many states' economies, including North Carolina's. Few Americans enter the farming workforce, however, so the agricultural industry has increasingly turned to immigrant workers to fill its ranks. But many farmers and their workers find themselves at the mercy of immigration law.

Farming interest groups, including the North Carolina Growers Association, want a guest worker program that would give farmers an increased ability to hire immigrant workers. Supporters of immigrant workers want an easier track to U.S. citizenship. But trends in the immigration debate have failed to deliver on both of their hopes.

The current program that allows farmers to hire foreign workers legally is called H-2A, after the type of visa that the workers receive under the program. But farmers dislike the program, calling it expensive and faulty. In addition, it appears that farmers cannot realistically meet their needs through the program, as North Carolina growers will only employ approximately 7,000 farm workers with H-2A visas this year.

Farmers and farm worker advocates thought they had made a breakthrough in 2003. They formed a coalition to support a political deal called AgJobs, which would have given farmers a simplified H-2A program and would have given 1.5 million illegal workers legal status and the chance to become U.S. citizens. But AgJobs hitched its star to the wrong wagon. The larger immigration bill to which it was attached fell apart in 2007.

Since then, the coalition has split. Farmers are still attempting to simplify H-2A alone. Proponents of reform now want to attach an immigrant guest worker program to the larger bill dealing with the E-Verify system. Some believe that E-Verify could pose significant harm to the farming industry. The outcome of this political debate could have far reaching consequences for immigrant workers and the farmers who employ them.

Source: The Miami Herald, "Farmers still fighting for immigrant guest-worker program," Michael Doyle, Feb. 9, 2012.

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