Federal visa program troubles some local farmers

gmartin@islandpacket.comMay 20, 2012 

As the summer growing season approaches, some farmers in Beaufort County are encountering problems with a federal visa program for seasonal agricultural workers.

Their concerns that the H-2A visas are too costly and difficult to obtain are shared by farmers throughout the region, said Columbia attorney Fred Manning.

"It's always been frustrating for farmers," said Manning, who works with four farms in South Carolina, including St. Helena Island's Six L's Packing Co. "It shouldn't be easier for them to use illegal labor than legal labor."

The program enables farmers to contract with teams of foreign laborers to assist with seasonal harvests. Employers are required to offer positions to American applicants before taking on the foreign labor.

In addition to paying a base wage of about $9.40 an hour to each laborer, farmers must provide their visa recipients with transportation and lodging.

Because of the costs associated with the program, most farms in South Carolina cannot afford it, Manning said, and the process of hiring the laborers is slow and demanding.

"If a farmer tells me he wants help starting April 1, I tell him we need to start with the paperwork in late July or August of the preceding year," he said. "It's cumbersome; there are a lot of hurdles."

The federal Department of Homeland Security often changes the program's requirements, such as mandatory filing dates, without advanced notice or explanation.

"It's not transparent," he said. "They should make it as easy as possible for farmers trying to take advantage of a program helping them get legal workers."

Farmers who don't use the visa program and hire undocumented laborers face severe penalties from state and federal authorities, Manning said. In addition to fines of at least $1,100 for each undocumented worker, they also are subject to criminal charges related to the workers' transportation and housing.

Gary Spires of the S.C. Farm Bureau said that despite its complications, the H-2A visa program benefits farmers.

"These workers are trained, skilled and legal," he said. "The farmers are paying all this for peace of mind."

Mac Sanders, who operates Seaside Farm in northern Beaufort County, describes the program as a necessary evil.

"There's a lot of red tape, and it's expensive," he said. "To tell you the truth, I wouldn't be doing it if my back weren't against the wall."

A team of about 200 laborers soon will begin the monthlong tomato harvest on Sanders' 400-acre farm and staying in housing he provides on his property.

Jane Oates, an assistant secretary for the federal Department of Labor, said in a written statement that her department has been working with farmers to process applications more efficiently. That includes a revamped website, an employer handbook and an ombudsman program to deal with complaints, she said.

Sean Cockerham of the McClatchy bureau in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report. Follow reporter Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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