Bill Brim is a lifelong Georgia farmer who’s beyond frustrated with the immigration system’s agriculture guest worker program. Brim relies on the H-2A visa program to hire about 600 migrant workers from Mexico to help harvest the bell peppers, squash, watermelon, broccoli and other produce that grows on his 6,000-acre, Tift County farm. But Brim says not only is the visa program expensive, it’s unreliable. Brim applied to hire hundreds of workers in February but government delays meant the workers didn’t arrive until several weeks after they were needed. “It’s a constant battle with H-2A,” says Brim, president of Lewis Taylor Farm, in southern Georgia. “They’re late processing people and getting them from Mexico. They weren’t here in time when I needed people to pick my crops, so I had to scramble and get anyone local I could.”
Ninety percent of my workers are repeats. Why can’t we find a way to fast-track them?
Brim serves on the board of directors for United Fresh, a lobby for immigration reform, and is an advocate for overhauling the system. “It’s a mess,” he says. “People are losing their crops because of delays. We’re talking serious money.” Brim would like to see the system streamlined. For example, he says the requirement of mailing applications by hand instead of filing them electronically is inefficient. So is the fact that returning workers must undergo the same screening process every year. “Ninety percent of my workers are repeats. Why can’t we find a way to fast-track them?”
Not only does the cumbersome system compromise farmers’ ability to get workers on time, but it’s also expensive and drives up Brim’s labor costs. Farmers must often pay a higher minimum wage – $10.59 per hour in Georgia in 2016 compared to the local minimum wage of $7.25 per hour — on top of room and board and a $460 processing fee per worker. “It hurts our bottom line. But I can’t afford not to pay it because I have to get my crops picked,” he says.
Brim would also like to see undocumented immigrants already living in the United States be given a pathway to work legally. Before he started using the H-2A program in 1997, Brim relied on local immigrant workers and liked having the flexibility to hire them according to the harvest. It’s a labor need that he hasn’t been able to meet with American-born workers. “If people aren’t used to this kind of work, they won’t last,” he says. “We specialize in produce and don’t want to have to train new people. My workers have to have six months experience with vegetables.”
A better system would also protect the interests of workers. Due to delays, many get stuck in limbo and aren’t able to earn a living. “They’re waiting around and not getting paid,” says Brim. “It’s not fair to them. We treat our workers well when they get here and want them treated well from the start.”