When 60-year-old Bert Lemkes sees Hispanic immigrants working in the fields around his home in western North Carolina, or in the greenhouses and nurseries he is involved in managing, he’s reminded of his own arrival in the United States. “I always compare myself to those people who come here to work and make money, because I came here for the same reason,” he says. “I came with a different method, but the purpose was the same.”
Lemkes was born in the Netherlands, and worked in the horticulture business in Holland, South Africa, and Haiti before an employer brought him here on a visa that allows businesses to transfer foreign employees with specialized skills to their U.S. offices. After five years he won a green-card lottery, and gained full citizenship in 2001. He’s proud to be American, and proud that his five children are citizens too. “When I chew my kids out, I chew them out in Dutch — but they answer me in English,” he says. “Believe me, my kids may not all have been born here, but they’re Americans.”
If we couldn’t find immigrant labor [to work the fields], then there would be no work for the [American] supervisors, the drivers, or the salespeople.
The same can’t be said for many of Lemkes’s employees. He estimates that at any given moment about 70% of his workforce, which fluctuates seasonally between 250 and 350 people, are Hispanic, with the bulk of them born outside the United States. He does follow the government rules for eligibility verification, but the process is tricky, and virtually no American-born workers are willing to do the back-breaking work needed to keep his farm and greenhouse operations running. “When you get into a bind, and you need labor, it becomes real challenging,” he says.
The bottom line, is that without immigrant labor, U.S. agriculture as we know it would be impossible to sustain. Even during the recession, when American workers were struggling to find jobs, Lemkes could seldom retain native-born workers. “We’ve all heard stories about produce that’s been left rotting in the field, or that can’t get shipped when it needs to be shipped,” he says. “But the real story is when you get 12 people showing up to work on Monday morning, and by the end of the week there’s only one left. That happens time after time.”
Immigrants, by contrast, are generally willing to do this hard, physical work. That generates tax revenues — in the agricultural sector, even undocumented workers get taxes deducted from their pay checks— and also creates better-paid, mid-level jobs for American workers. “If we couldn’t find immigrant labor [to work the fields], then there would be no work for the supervisors, the drivers, or the salespeople,” Lemkes says.
Many proposed immigration fixes don’t recognize the economic importance of immigrant workers, Lemkes says. The notion of mass deportations is especially troubling, since it would leave so many farmers short-handed. “It’d be an absolute disaster.”
What’s really needed, Lemkes argues, is a comprehensive solution that treats immigrants as a resource rather than a problem. “It’s not just about immigration, it’s about the entry and exit of people who’re willing to do these jobs,” he says. “A lot of the people who’ve come to do the work we’re talking about—agricultural labor—have stayed because it’s too expensive or difficult or dangerous for them to move back and forth.” If it were easier for people to cross the border legally, then workers would come for the season, then return home, rather than staying on more or less permanently. “We have to make sure that for the future, we have a workable visa system that allows people to come and go,” he says.
For America’s farmers, the stakes couldn’t be higher. “To keep our agricultural economy in western North Carolina going, we need this labor,” Lemkes says. “If the labor isn’t here then our food production, our agricultural production, will move offshore.”
Indeed, the offshoring of agricultural production has already begun: while the watermelons, tomatoes, eggplants, and other produce that Lemkes grows remain safe for now, formerly domestically-grown items such as flowers and ornamentals are now routinely shipped in from abroad. Without an immigration fix, Lemkes warns, it’s only a matter of time before food production shifts offshore too. “Your fruit and vegetables are going to be picked by foreign hands — the question is whether they’re picked within our borders, or outside them.”