The House Select Committee on the State's Role on Immigration Policy has a long name with a short mission: to craft legislation that in effect would make life in North Carolina miserable for undocumented immigrants.
Last week, the committee ostensibly met to hear from representatives of construction and agriculture groups—plus Immigration Works USA, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that represents business interests nationwide—about hiring practices and the preponderance of Latinos in certain industries.
But the meeting quickly transformed from inquisitiveness to an inquisition. Republican legislators including Rep. George Cleveland, Rep. Dale Folwell and Rep. Sarah Stevens, who sit on the committee, were quick to blame education (too much college and not enough vocational training for U.S.-born North Carolinians), extended unemployment benefits (Stevens said people aren't hungry enough to want to work; tell that to the 15.7 percent of North Carolina households without enough food) and the lack of law enforcement against undocumented immigrants for our socio-economic woes.
"When you go by a construction worksite, you see a lot of Hispanic people who are working," said Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell. "What is it that makes Hispanic workers drawn to this?"
Claudia Dodgen, vice president of employee services for Crowder Construction, told the committee that the building industry, while opposing illegal immigration, is "highly dependent on the Hispanic workforce. They bring a very strong craft skill and work ethic." Even in a healthy economy, Dodgen said, "there was a shortage of craft workers; the Hispanic community filled the void."
The void exists, said Folwell, echoing fellow conservative Rick Santorum's disparagement of higher education, because of North Carolinians' lack of vocational skills. The state needs a workforce, Folwell said, that learns to "work with their hands and not their thumbs." To further his point, Folwell added, "A senior in high school recently told me he regretted taking too many AP courses and not enough vocational classes."
Had Folwell checked the N.C. Department of Public Instruction website, he would have seen data showing that enrollment in vocational education in public high schools and middle schools has increased nearly 9.5 percent from 2001–2011. [See Documents sidebar.]
Here are some key figures:
Jo Anne Honeycutt, DPI's director for career and technical education, told the Indy there is "huge demand" for career and technical education, the official term for vocational studies. "The classes are full." As for the enrollment numbers, the fluctuation is due to improved data collection methods; some high school students also take community college classes, which don't figure into DPI counts, she said.
Although a third of U.S. construction work is held by Latinos, in 2008, overall Latino employment in that field fell by 500,000 to 2.6 million workers, according to the nonprofit Center for Construction Research and Training. And fewer young Latinos are entering the construction field. [See Documents sidebar.]
It is true that overall, today's U.S. citizens are better educated than previous generations. Even in construction trades, American workers tend to be supervisors and engineers, while Latino construction workers, a third of whom don't have a high school diploma, tend to hold the lower-paid positions.
But in some cases, Americans aren't educated enough, said Tamar Jacoby, president of Immigration Works USA. "Foreign-born workers are either low skilled or highly skilled, either farmworkers or science Ph.Ds. We're in the middle."
Americans with higher levels of education reject farm work, said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the NC Growers Association. At the peak of the annual harvest, 75,000–95,000 foreign-born workers are in North Carolina legally on visas; thousands more undocumented workers labor in vegetable fields and fruit orchards. Americans are less likely to take these jobs, Wicker said, because of the work's seasonal nature. "We'll need a legal foreign-born workforce to grow these crops," he added.
The committee seemed to have invited Jacoby for the sole purpose of marginalizing her presentation, which detailed the ramifications of ousting immigrants—documented and undocumented—from the workforce. (Cleveland called her presentation "irrelevant.") "When lawmakers try to use enforcement tools to drive workers out of the state, the catch is, sometimes it works," Jacoby said. In Alabama, since the GOP-led legislature passed tougher immigration laws, tens of thousands of documented and undocumented immigrants have fled the state, leaving crops to rot in the fields. Legislators are now considering amending the law. A similar phenomenon happened in Georgia. [See Documents sidebar.]
"That's blown out of proportion and a total farce," said Cleveland, adding that after a North Carolina packing plant lost many of its undocumented employees in a raid, American workers filled the ranks. "Georgia didn't have a catastrophe."
Some farmers would dispute that. Parts of Georgia's produce industry were hit particularly hard, according to a January 2012 report by the state agriculture department. Half to two-thirds of farmers surveyed who grow blueberries, cabbage, cantaloupe, cucumbers eggplant, peppers, squash or tobacco said they were hurt by the lack of available workers. The majority of farmers surveyed responded that income losses were not applicable to their operations, but of the 150 farmers who did cite such losses, 17 said they totaled more than $100,000. Two farmers responded they had lost more than $1 million each.
Rep. Frank Iler, who chairs the committee, named several groups that declined to present before lawmakers. One of them was the NC Green Industry Council. Doug Chapman, the council's chairman, told the Indy his group believes the states should pressure the federal government to fix the system, rather than do it themselves. "When states get involved in patchwork laws, it's bad for the economy," he says. "This needs to be fixed at the federal level."
Which, in effect, would put the House immigration committee out of a job.