The loamy soil of North Carolina is being used to address a key political debate: Does immigration create jobs or take them away?
As U.S. politicians debate a watershed immigration bill, which removes the threat of deportation for 11 million illegal immigrants and offers a path toward U.S. citizenship, The Centre for Global Development, an influential think tank that focuses on international aid and development issues, has released a study examining the impact of immigration on farming, one of the oldest, and most important North American industries.
Every year, after proving that U.S. workers won’t fill their employment needs, North Carolina farmers, through a joint collective called the North Carolina Growers Association, spend about $100,000 to advertise farm jobs. At the same time, the farmers also file requests with the federal government for permission to hire foreign seasonal farm workers.
In 2011, there were 489,000 unemployed people in the state and 6,500 available farm jobs. Yet even with 10 per cent unemployment in the U.S., just 268 of those nearly 500,000 unemployed North Carolinans bothered to apply for jobs.
Of the 245 resident Americans who were hired for farm work, just 163 showed up for their first day of work. Four weeks in, more than half of those had quit.
Just seven native workers completed the entire growing season.
The 7,000 seasonal workers, meanwhile, who received H-2A visas, added at least $248 million to the state’s economy, creating one U.S. worker job for each 3 to 4.6 foreign farmer workers who worked in North Carolina.
"About two-thirds of hired farm workers in America today are foreigners, and America’s farms are depending steadily more on hired help and less on family members,” the CGD study, called International Harvest, says.
The analysis also suggests that most farmers cannot pay higher wages to find more native workers. If wages were raised for collecting cucumbers from $9.70 an hour to $19.40, the study says, it would be impossible for farmers to grow the vegetable profitably.
“North Carolina’s experience shows that few Americans look for these jobs, fewer show up for day one, and even fewer stay through to the end,” the report says. “At a basic level, the farms of North Carolina depend on foreign labour to even exist.”
The CGD’s findings echo the results of a 2011 study conducted on behalf of the Partnership for a New American Economy, which lobbies the U.S. government for more liberal immigration laws.
That study, reported in The Economist, concluded immigration bolsters employment. It reported that employment among native-born Americans increased by 262 jobs for every 100 foreign-born workers admitted with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics from U.S. universities.
For every 100 H-1B work visas, 183 Americans found jobs. Foreigners on average paid about 10 times more in taxes than they received in government benefits, the study found.
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead