Bill Brim is a farmer who says he loves his vegetables. He points to dozens of varieties he’s grown as he walks through rows of plants at his farm, Lewis Taylor Farms, in Tifton, Georgia.
“I can be a vegetarian real easily,” he says. “I do like my bacon every once in a while though,” he adds after a pause, laughing.
The produce Brim grows on his 5,000-acre farm is picked by hand. Every year, he hires about 500 people through a temporary guest worker program, called H-2A.
“If we don’t have immigration, you’ll quit eating. That’s how important it is because we won’t have the help here to pick it,” Brim said.
He and other farmers have been watching the immigration debate in Washington as President Donald Trump has been cracking down on illegal immigration. Last week, the president endorsed legislation that would cut down on legal immigration, though the bill doesn't affect H-2A.
Still, while Brim uses the legal H-2A program, other farmers still don’t, he said. It’s estimated that only about 10 percent of agriculture jobs are filled by H-2A workers, according to the Brookings Institution.
From his perspective as a farmer, Brim says the program can be tedious as there’s a lot of paperwork and farmers can experience delays. Growers also have to house the workers and are required by law to do things like take out newspaper ads before hiring foreign workers.
“H-2A is a good program, but it’s just really cumbersome. It’s hard to deal with,” Brim said. “You’ve got to have so many people working on it to make sure you’re doing the right thing, to try to get focused on it.”
Brim and other farmers would like to see changes to H-2A regulations. A group of farmers associations signed a letter sent to Washington in March, asking for the Trump administration to consider dozens of changes. For one, they want the program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, instead of the U.S. Department of Labor.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor says it has seen the letter from Georgia farmers but had no comment on it.
Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said agriculture heavily depends on foreign labor.
“It’s hard work; it’s very difficult,” he said. “Our growers would love to hire Americans to do this work, but we cannot get hardly any workers to get this work done.”
Aside from changes to the H-2A program, the letter also asks for a legislative fix for workers living in the country illegally who are already working in agriculture. A survey by the U.S. Department of Labor says about half of farm workers in the United States are living in the country without legal permission.
“So, if for someone to come forward and say 'I am here illegally,’ there’s got to be some kind of safe harbor for them to be able to do that,” Hall said.
In Irwin County, about 30 miles east of Brim’s farm, Gary Paulk walks through a field of strawberries. Workers load a truck that’s playing music. Paulk is concerned the tough talk in Washington has caused fear among immigrant communities.
He remembers 2011 when Georgia passed an immigration enforcement bill, HB 87. He said after that law passed, many workers left Georgia and crews that had planned to come bypassed the state.
“It just ended up scaring everybody away,” he said. “That’s the year we probably lost $200,000 with fruit just rotting, falling off the vines because we couldn’t pick it.”
He said he’s been fine with labor this year, both with H-2A and domestic workers, but there was also a big freeze in March that killed some of his crop this year.
“I want to offer the safest food, sustainable, nutritional food available to my city cousins in Atlanta, but it just doesn’t happen. Somebody’s got to plant it, and they got to prune it, and they got to grow it, and it’s got to be harvested,” Paulk said.
Paulk said he hopes cooler heads will prevail on immigration.