South Carolina’s food system relies on immigrant labor, without which all of us would suffer, that was the message at an immigration reform event Thursday morning at Soby’s Restaurant in Greenville.
Part local foods pep rally, part call to action, the event was organized by both the Partnership for a New American Economy and the American Farm Bureau & South Carolina Farm Bureau.
Chalmers Carr, president of Titan Springs Farm and president of USA Farmers and the National Peach Council and Carl Sobocinski, owner of Table 301 and a member of the National Restaurant Association were on hand to speak about the relevance of the immigration issue to their businesses. With a backdrop of local produce, the two made their case for that reform must include an easy guest worker program as well as a measured path toward citizenship for those workers who wish to stay in the U.S.
“In order for us to be able to do what we need to do to supply South Carolinians fresh produce we need a legal workforce we can count on,” Carr said.
South Carolina, who’s two biggest industries are agriculture and tourism, is particularly impacted by immigration reform, Carr said, because both rely on seasonal workers.
But, “we are on the edge of a fix,” he added.
The Senate last year passed a comprehensive immigration bill; we need the House of Representatives to do the same thing. We have this summer to get this done.
Nationally, immigration reform is a hot button topic garnering a lot of passionate opinions on both sides of the issue. The Senate passed the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” or S. 744, last year. The bill, which was proposed by a group of eight senators including South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, is now up for consideration by the House of Representatives.
“This is extremely important, and now is the time to act,” Sobocinski said. “The Senate passed smart legislation, we need to get the House on board and we need to make things happen with that now.”
Among other things, the immigration bill would allow for the expansion of a guest worker program, something Carr said farmers in South Carolina are in desperate need of.
“There are not Americans willing to do those jobs,” Carr said. “I know those statistics first hand.”
From 2010 to 2012, Carr said he advertised for 2,000 jobs. Four hundred American workers applied for the $10 an hour position. Only 19 actually showed up, and only six ended up completing the job to the end of the season.
“Across the board, it doesn’t matter where you go there are labor shortages,” Carr said.
Titian Farm uses the H-2A Visa Program, which governs temporary workers, but he said not many farmers do. A recent study by the National Council of Agricultural Employers points to why.
The advocacy group’s survey showed that bureaucratic delays with the H-2A program meant immigrant farm workers arrived at their jobs an average of 22 days late, adding up to $320 million in lost revenue each year.
But immigration goes beyond just an issue, it’s about people, Sobocinski said. The restauranteur has grown more interested in the issue as his own workforce has reflected more non-natives. Today, about 25 percent of Table 301’s workers come from other countries, Sobocinski said.
“Yes I get more excited about the produce coming out of the ground and being here for us to serve, that’s what I love to do,” Sobocinski said. “But at the end of the day that would not be possible and I most likely wouldn’t be able to operate six restaurants in this town without a workforce.”
The issue of comprehensive reform is important to sustain the popular farm-to-table movement, Sobocinski noted. Local food means people to harvest the ingredients.
“To provide the product to the end user, there are a lot of steps in between, and the immigrant workforce is critical to that process.”