In passing House Bill 36 last week, the N.C. House of Representatives sent illegal immigrants a message.
If you want to come here and tend our fields, pick our crops or otherwise work outside in the sun, we'll look the other way. But if you try to put on a collared shirt and tie, we're coming for you.
Let me explain.
House Bill 36 broadens the state's E-Verify requirements. Already state agencies are supposed to submit the names of potential hires to a federal database to determine whether they can work legally in the United States. House 36 initially expanded this requirement to city and county governments, as well as private companies with government contracts.
Then legislators included any business with 25 or more employees, with a notable exception. From the bill:
Exemption. — The requirement to register and participate in E-Verify to verify the work authorization of new employees does not apply to an entity that employs solely seasonal temporary employees for 90 or fewer days during a 12-consecutive-month period.
Asked about this, Speaker of the House Thom Tillis noted that many crops have a short harvest window — you either pick them, or they rot. He said the best example is blueberries, and that farmers told the legislature they don't have time to verify the hundreds of people who show up to pick them.
Some of those people are children, but that's another column.
There's no intent, Tillis said, to tell undocumented immigrants they're welcome to field work but not a job with, say, air conditioning.
"No, I — it may send that message," Tillis said. "But I think that it's — they're drawing the wrong conclusions. This just has to do with the practical limitations of the job we're talking about and the employment base that would go to it. ... The vast majority of (crop pickers) are, I believe, valid workers."
Just to extend that logic - the "vast majority" of Latinos working in North Carolina fields are valid workers. And, yet, we've allegedly got this massive illegal immigration problem that costs all this taxpayer money and requires a number of GOP-driven legislative overhauls, including attempts to track illegal immigrants in schools and new identification requirements to vote or receive any number of government services.
I don't think both those things can be true.
I asked House Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell, one of H 36's sponsors, whether he thought the bill sent a conflicting message to immigrants. He said he hadn't thought about it that way. State Rep. Rick Glazier, a Cumberland Democrat who voted against the bill, agreed that it does.
"That's precisely what the bill does," Glazier said. "I think it absolutely creates that blatantly inconsistent position."
Farm interests lobby against immigration crackdowns for a reason. Our food chain depends, at least in part, on the prevalence of relatively cheap labor.
Take a look at this recent survey of Georgia farmers, taken after the Georgia legislature passed a much more restrictive crackdown:
- 46 percent said they have a labor shortage
- 24 percent said fewer people are applying for available jobs
- 37 percent said immigrant are concerned over Georgia's new immigration reforms
- 30 percent are worried they won't have the workers they need in the future
Illegal immigration is against the law. But we have all but codified it in this country by allowing our food economy to be so intertwined with it. So, for those calling for a crackdown, that's fine. But think about whether you're willing to work a field for $12-$14 an hour (the average pay range in Georgia, per the above survey) and how much you're willing to pay for blueberries.
There is clearly significant government cost to illegal immigration. But there's also revenue, and if you account for the sales taxes illegal immigrants pay, the income taxes they pay on fake Social Security numbers, their contributions to the Social Security system and the effect a larger labor pool has on food prices ... well, who knows how the math works.
If you want to crack down on illegal immigration, that's fine. Just be careful what you ask for.