Immigrants can solve the growing labor shortage facing North Carolina farms

NC Farm Bureau President Shawn Harding recently noted that many of our state and country’s economic challenges stem from labor shortages that have largely gone unnoticed, and urged policymakers to “solve, or at least get over, our labor problems.” talk about how we can solve our work problems”.

As a pastor at High Point who has witnessed firsthand the impact of this labor shortage on local triad communities, I agree. North Carolina, like much of the country, is facing a labor crisis. Nowhere is this more evident than in our state’s $10 billion agribusiness. North Carolina ranks sixth nationally for the number of immigrant farm workers, but meeting the growing demand for labor has long been a challenge.

But there is more at stake than the economy. Immigrants are an integral part of our communities and our churches; Tens of thousands of people in Guilford County are immigrants and refugees seeking new opportunities for a better life. Christians should feel a duty to stand up for the inherent dignity of every human life, and this also applies to migrant farm workers, who are often subjected to hazardous working conditions, abuse and exploitation. Many people will argue that this is a matter for the courts, but I would argue that this is a matter for the church. Social justice should be biblical justice.

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According to the Department of Labor, North Carolina farms employed more than 21,000 temporary workers in 2019 under the temporary farm worker program known as H-2A. However, these numbers should be much higher. And the timing couldn’t be more critical. That’s because the cost of consumer goods in the U.S. Southeast, particularly groceries, has risen about 10% over the past year.

A recent Texas A&M study commissioned by the American Business Immigration Coalition found that admitting more migrant and H-2A workers would lower inflation and raise average wages. In contrast, researchers found that denying migrant workers naturalization would increase inflation and consumer prices.

In fact, migrant agricultural workers, approximately 70% of whom are undocumented, are vital to North Carolina’s economy. Yet they remain vulnerable to economic exploitation, human trafficking and the threat of deportation.

Throughout the Bible, God tells us to love and protect the weakest among us. And as the senior pastor at One Church, I have long taught that the principles of compassion and solidarity are at the heart of our faith. The Church can no longer remain silent; We are called to stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves and to defend the rights of widows, the poor and the needy. And that includes our migrant workers.

It is these principles that guide churches like mine to actively engage with our local immigrant communities and work in partnership with humanitarian organizations like World Relief.

Immigration reform has stalled for over a decade. But there is a bipartisan congressional immigration solution that can end this standoff and help ensure a stable, legal farm workforce: the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.

On July 12, House Republicans and several farming organizations held a press conference calling on the Senate to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The bill passed the House of Representatives in March 2021 with strong bipartisan support.

Among other things, the bill would end the current requirement for temporary farm workers to return to their home countries after nine months. Instead, it would allow up to 20,000 temporary workers to obtain three-year visas.

Crucially, these three-year visas would allow the thousands of farm workers employed in the dairy and meat industries to retain jobs that require year-round employment. Both sectors are particularly hard hit by the labor shortage – the prices for dairy and meat products have risen between 4.5% and 7% as a result.

About four in five registered voters recently polled said they would support bipartisan action by Congress to bring down food prices by securing a legal, reliable workforce.

Most importantly, the Farm Labor Modernization Act would allow hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers to gain permanent legal status if they pay a fine as compensation for breaking the law.

The nationwide labor shortage is becoming a bigger crisis with each passing day, and North Carolinians are particularly suffering the cost of rising farm prices. I pray that lawmakers will come together to pass bipartisan immigration reform that both affirms the God-given dignity of migrant workers and helps address the economic challenges ahead.

Ryan Sims is the senior pastor of One Church in High Point.

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