Every April, about 30 immigrants board a bus in Mexico and travel nearly 2,000 miles to Jackie Thompson’s farm in Rolesville, where they harvest roughly 600,000 pounds of tobacco.
It’s an agreement that can help everyone involved: Immigrants need money to provide for their families, and Thompson needs help to run his 900-acre farm. Every year he sells tobacco, 18,000 pounds of soybeans, 25 bushels of wheat and 10,000 bushels of cucumbers to tobacco companies and commercial food producers.
About 80,000 farmworkers – primarily Latino migrants and immigrants as well as U.S. natives – toil on farms in North Carolina, where agriculture still plays a major role, according to the N.C. Farm Bureau. Advocacy groups put that number closer to 150,000.
Roughly half are undocumented immigrants, although many have been living in North Carolina for decades, according to the bureau. About 25 percent come to work in the U.S. temporarily through the federal H-2A visa program.
Only one-fourth of the state’s farmworkers, a mix of immigrants and U.S. nationals, live in North Carolina permanently.
They are an invisible workforce that props up North Carolina’s $84 billion agriculture industry.
“Foreign labor is what provides jobs for U.S. citizens and North Carolina residents working in the agricultural industry,” said Sen. Thom Tillis. “It is hard to overestimate what agriculture means to our state.”
President Donald Trump, who promises to tighten immigration rules, has said immigrants are taking too many jobs from U.S. natives. But some North Carolina farmers say they can’t find enough locals to work in their fields, where the hours are long and the sun is unrelenting, so they must rely on foreign labor.
Without immigrants, Thompson couldn’t run his farm.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Thompson, 66, said. “The U.S. complains with our mouths full. They want to eat it, but they don’t want to pick it.”
In February, Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau, and a group of farmers met with Tillis, Sen. Richard Burr, Rep. George Holding, Rep. David Rouzer, Rep. Ted Budd and Rep. Mark Meadows, all Republicans, to discuss immigration reform, simplifying the H-2A program and determining an avenue to legal status for undocumented farmworkers.
By Madison Iszler for The News & Observer
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