Jeff Bender’s 400-acre farm grows labor-intensive crops, including tobacco, melons and cabbage. Yet when he needs to hire a dozen people during the peak of the growing season, he often cannot find qualified workers. He’s truly in a bind. He cannot be certain that foreign-born workers are giving him real social security numbers. Native-born American workers, meanwhile, are rarely available when Bender needs them most, and they lack the stamina and training required to harvest his crops. “I’ve made it work, but it’s been hard finding people who are consistent and do a quality job,” he says. “We need to find an efficient way to bring new workers into this country.”
Bender believes the U.S. government needs to reform its current guest worker program, which he says is too bureaucratic and expensive. Under the program, he would have to pay about $15 an hour for a foreign worker (by the time he factors in housing, transportation, visa and processing fees), compared to $7.25 an hour for a local worker. Such high labor costs make it hard for farmers like himself to survive, he says. To grow a crop like tobacco, which must be planted and pruned by hand and weeded with an old-fashioned hoe, labor accounts for about 20 percent of his expenses. “The politicians don’t understand what’s involved,” he says, “The labor costs on all fruits and veggies are significant, and there isn’t a domestic labor force available to meet the needs of agriculture.”
We’re going to import workers, or we’re going to have to import our food.
Bender also takes issue with the way immigration has been discussed in the media and doesn’t believe the rhetoric honors the human factor. “Immigrant workers just want to work and take care of their families,” he says, “They’re loyal and dedicated workers and basically good people who just want to make a better life for themselves.”
He wants to see an immigration system that prioritizes the needs of businesses, especially those that feed our nation. “We’re going to import workers, or we’re going to have to import our food,” Bender says. One solution would be to legalize the immigrant labor force that’s already in this country. “We need a way that doesn’t make me a criminal for unknowingly hiring an undocumented worker or make them a criminal for just wanting to make a living.”