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South Carolina Farmer Discusses Use of Immigrant Workers

August 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
The third conversation in a series on immigration in the United States features an interview with Chalmers Carr, a South Carolina peach farmer.
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RAY SUAREZ: Tonight, a voice on the role of the employer in the immigration debate. Titan Peach Farms is in Ridge Springs, South Carolina. It’s the state’s largest commercial peach operation and relies heavily on the work of migrant laborers. Titan’s owner and CEO is Chalmers Carr. He joins us from now Columbia.

Welcome, Mr. Carr.

CHALMERS CARR, South Carolina Peach Farmer: Good to see you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, in the debates over illegal immigration to the United States, agriculture is often spoken of as one of the most intense users of illegal labor in this country. Is that a fair comment?

CHALMERS CARR: That is a fair comment. We’re one of the largest proportionally using undocumented workers, but we’re not the largest segment using them. But percentage-wise of our work base, that is a fair comment.

RAY SUAREZ: Maybe we can get a feel for the size of your business, the acreage, the crop, how many people you employ?

CHALMERS CARR: My operation is about 2,600 acres of peaches and about another couple of hundred acres of fruits and vegetables, as well. I employ up to 330 seasonal workers. We have about 360 full-time or seasonal and full-time workers altogether.

RAY SUAREZ: Can a farmer still manage if he plays all the applicable payroll taxes, the federal minimum wage, all the applicable insurances and so on, and only use legal residents of the United States in the workforce?

CHALMERS CARR: We’re already doing that, Ray. We are part of the H-2A program, and all of our foreign migrant workers are legally visa’d, permitted to come into the country with passports and visas.

RAY SUAREZ: And has that worked out for you?

CHALMERS CARR: That has worked out for us, but it has proven to be very expensive and very cumbersome to use. That’s the reason why a lot of farmers across the country do not use this program. And something that we’re hoping to see will come out of this debate in Washington is we’re hoping to get some true reforms to these guest-worker programs that will allow employers to use legal workers and not force them to use underground workers, so to speak.

RAY SUAREZ: Cumbersome in what way?

CHALMERS CARR: It’s very cumbersome in paperwork, getting the workers to the consulates. In the last couple of years since 9/11, going through the interview process in the consulates in Mexico has proven to be very difficult. They now have to interview every worker coming into the country.

So if you can imagine, between the business and agriculture community, we’re probably right now processing about 110,000 to 150,000 visas, and those are low-tech visas, low-skilled visas. That does not include the H-1A visas, which are the high-skilled visas.

And so there’s extreme delays right now. And the paperwork on our end as a producer, we have to actually hire an outside source to do our paperwork. It’s just very cumbersome to get this paperwork through the Department of Labor, through everybody else now, the State Department, to get these workers into the country.

Native-born workers

RAY SUAREZ: If, as has been contemplated by some of the proposed reforms, a lot of these workers were sent home and you had to rely on more of a native-born workforce, could do you it?

CHALMERS CARR: No, we could not. If this country made that decision, then we would also be making the decision that we'd be moving our fruits and vegetable or our perishable agriculture production offshore, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Why? What would change about the economics of your business that you are so categorical about knowing it wouldn't work that way?

CHALMERS CARR: Well, just to give you an example right now, the federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. I am mandated through the H-2A program to pay $8.37 cents an hour, so that's quite a bit above minimum wage. I have to guarantee those wages, and I provide housing.

Yet each year, I advertise for over 300 jobs. In the last eight years combined, that would be 2,400 jobs, and I've had only 30 U.S. citizens apply for these jobs, and only two of them take it and last more than a day. So if I was to rely on local workers to do these jobs, I would be out of business. And most perishable operation would be out of business overnight.

RAY SUAREZ: Yet one of the persisting story lines about the South Carolina workforce in the wider national news is that there's terrible job dislocation because of the movement of so many jobs out of South Carolina. Why is there not a ready workforce that's willing to do this work?

CHALMERS CARR: Well, basically, you're looking at a job that we classify as unskilled labor. And I don't see any society in this country, especially in South Carolina, where we're raising our children to do unskilled labor.

Now, there's other factors associated with that, government programs that maybe make it more beneficial for people not to work, but the bottom line is there are jobs out there, but right now we just do not have people willing to do these type of work.

Immigration laws

RAY SUAREZ: So if we were to put together a Chalmers Carr bill, basically your proposal for how to address some of these problems, what would you like to see?

CHALMERS CARR: Well, first and foremost, I believe that we should not displace American workers. If there's an American worker willing and able to do the job, then I think that worker should be given the chance. But as I've given you in my example, I do not have willing, able-bodied workers willing to do the job.

So therefore we must be able to go offshore and get labor. Now, it must seasonal and temporary at a time, or at least with a limit on it up to three years at the maximum, but you've got to allow workers to come in this country.

We do not want to see our food production go offshore. If you see our food production go offshore, and you already see what's going on in the Middle East and how we run our policies in this country right now on fuel and energy, wait until you're trying to run your policies on where you're going to get your next food from.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, if we were to allow workers to come in to help you and other farmers across the country and thus hold down the cost of food at the grocery store, could we rely on those workers allowed in temporarily to actually go home? Once a finite work visa is done, would that worker actually pick up and go back to where they came from?

CHALMERS CARR: In my experience, yes. If you had free mobility, meaning they can go back and forth across the border -- and one thing is, if we strengthen our laws, which is being proposed, and we strengthen our borders, and we go to increased enforcement, and we created an area where there is no fraudulent documents or everything, where we go to biometrics, then these workers will only be out of work for employers that have put in petitions for them.

Therefore, when the work is over with, they would want to return home, reestablish roots with their family, but then again be able to come back next year. If they break the laws right now in this country and they work in these programs, they're not able to come back next year.

In the eight years that I've been doing it, I've had about a 90 percent return rate every year, and everybody wants to come back. They want to go back home. Their families are there. The notion that these people actually want to move over here and become U.S. citizens, there are some that do, but I think the greater majority come here for the jobs, for the benefit of trying to better their lives, but they want to go back home to their families.

RAY SUAREZ: And I'm guessing you need a lot of predictability because peaches, as everyone who has kept one on their shelf in the kitchen knows, is a very perishable crop, isn't it?

CHALMERS CARR: It's a very perishable crop. The weather has a lot to do with us. I can go into every year planning for 330, 340 workers, and a hail storm can come or a freeze can come, and I can cut my workforce in half on that. And then again, I could be given a good year where everything just works out perfectly and I actually need 360 to 400 workers.

So to have the flexibility in a program that allows you, you know, to kind of be able to move, it's got to be very -- I guess the word for it is we've got to be very flexible. And it cannot be too mandated. And it's got to move within certain boundaries, especially the work in the agriculture environment.

RAY SUAREZ: Chalmers Carr of Titan Peach Farms, thanks for being with us.

CHALMERS CARR: Thank you, Ray. Enjoyed it very much.

MARGARET WARNER: Our next immigration conversation is with Jesus Garcia, a naturalized citizen originally from Mexico who's now a leading community activist in Chicago.