Out of the Shadows

Farmer and sunset

Immigration has always been a hot button issue but over the last year it’s reached a new level of interest mainly driven by President Donald Trump’s vow to “build a wall.” Many statements made news headlines as both democrats and republicans highlighted statistics that supported their varied viewpoints while discounting those that did not. It’s enough to make anyone scratch their head with confusion? To make sense of it all and how it affects North Carolina, we approached both sides of the aisle to address the most commonly made assertions in an effort to separate fact from fiction.

Statement #1: They’re taking our jobs through cheap labor.

John Pearce bristles at the words cheap labor. 

“There’s nothing cheap about it,” he says.

Pearce is the owner of Logan Cattle Company, a small farm in Louisburg, and what he’s talking about is the H2A visa, a temporary work program that allows agricultural businesses to hire seasonal employees if they anticipate shortages of domestic workers. About 150,000 guest or migrant workers come to North Carolina each season through this program, and according to ncjustice.org, the state has more H2A workers than any other.

For every hire, Pearce must pay $1,000 at the outset for the worker’s visa and transportation. He then pays $11.20/hour (N.C. minimum wage is $7.25) plus provides housing and utilities.

“It ends up being more than $15 to $16 per hour,” he says.

Though the labor may not be cheap, both sides of the political aisle seem to have a problem with the guest worker program.

“We have always advocated for lower levels of guest workers,” says David Ray, Communications Director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an organization that supports securing the borders and reducing illegal immigration. “If you have a constant supply of cheap labor it prevents farmers from mechanizing. It’s modern day indentured servitude.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, supporters of immigration and amnesty point to a system that may promote opportunities for abuse. A high-profile lawsuit last August involving a farm owned by Senator Brent Jackson put a spotlight on the program and alleged mistreatments.

Agricultural businesses invest a substantial amount of money in the program to bring guest workers to the U.S. so they don’t want them leaving for another farm. However, if workers aren’t happy in their situations their choices are often to return home or go undocumented.

“There are flaws in every system and I think it’s isolated not widespread,” says Pearce, who has been participating in the program for five years and has only had one worker leave early. The rest? “They give me a copy of a bus ticket, and they go home the right way at the end of the season.”

But he emphasizes that he doesn’t choose the program over hiring domestically. He’s tried to hire locals to work at the farm at the same rates, well over minimum wage jobs, but hasn’t had much success: “The Government’s thought process was that once the wages got high enough locals would want to do the work. They don’t want to do the work; they’re not inspired to pick cucumbers.”

Statement #2: Sanctuary cities help keep criminals on the street.

Currently, several members of the U.S. Congress and Senate are trying to pass legislation known as Kate’s Law. This law is named after Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old woman who died after being shot by an undocumented Mexican immigrant, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Though Steinle was not his target and was inadvertently shot, Lopez-Sanchez was a convicted felon.

“When interviewed after the shooting, he said he came back to San Francisco because he knew it was a sanctuary city,” says Ray. “By doing so [the city] is unwittingly endangering the lives of local citizens because they don’t know who they are harboring.”

However, statistics suggest that even as immigration has increased, violent crimes have decreased. And in Wake County, there are no recent records of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

In 2015, then-Governor Pat McCrory signed into legislation House Bill 318, essentially a measure to prohibit North Carolina counties from establishing sanctuary cities that might restrict law enforcement’s cooperation with immigration officials and expanded the use of E-verify to check legal status.  Organizations such as the North Carolina Justice Center expressed their disappointment in the law saying it “undermines how local governments address their own needs when it comes to immigrant communities and makes North Carolina appear to be a hostile place for newcomers of all identities.” While Sarah Preston, acting Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said that by making it harder for people to indentify themselves to law enforcement it would discourage the reporting of crimes.

Though anti-sanctuary legislation exists there are no enforcement measures to ensure compliance. N.C. Representative George Cleveland tried to pass House Bill 100 this past summer in an effort to put “teeth” into the legislation but the measure did not get enough votes. He does plan to introduce new legislation again early this year.

“It is my intention to introduce new legislation in the coming session.  At this point I have nothing definite, however, I think it will be along to lines of giving citizens the ability to take local governments to court if they pursue sanctuary policies,” says Representative Cleveland.

It’s commonly believed that Governor Roy Cooper will not support such legislation, though “Cooper has been a proponent of sanctuary cities,” says Summerlin-Long.

Statement #3: North Carolina’s unauthorized immigration population is growing.

Between 1990 and 2000 and even going into 2007, the number of foreign born and undocumented immigrants in North Carolina increased almost exponentially. Then the recession hit.

“The basic consensus is that nationally and in North Carolina, the years immediately after the recession, more people were leaving the country than coming in,” says Jeff Summerlin-Long, who teaches U.S. immigration policy at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It appears that in the last two years, once the economy started picking back up, the numbers started to increase.”

Though the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. is still well below pre-recession figures—the current estimate is 5.8 million to a high of 6.9 million in 2007—North Carolina one of only six states that has seen and increase between 2009 and 2014.

One reason the state has seen more growth than others is what Summerlin-Long calls chain migration or network-based migration, where immigrants basically call home and tell relatives and friends about local job opportunities.

“About 94 to 95 percent of farm workers are undocumented, especially on the coast in the crabbing industry, fishing industries, and chicken processing plants,” he says. However, Summerlin-Long is quick to note that there is little to no evidence that undocumented workers are taking jobs away from locals. Many of these industries have a hard time finding laborers to do the job, he says.

Though only 3.6 percent of the state’s population is comprised of undocumented immigrants, the proportion when compared to total immigrants is higher than in many other states. Meaning that of all immigrants in the state (including documented), about 47 percent are undocumented.

“The biggest change we’ve seen is how long [undocumented immigrants] are staying,” says Summerlin-Long. “It used to be a cyclical pattern–six months to a year–now the average length of stay is 10 years.”

Statement #4: They are costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

The debate continues to rage as to whether undocumented immigrants contribute more economically than what they cost. “It’s a version of statistical warfare based on their beliefs,” says Summerlin-Long. “All the research says there’s no question that immigrants are a contributor to the economy but when you look at undocumented kids who were served through ESL, health care—it starts to look  like the cost outweighs benefits.”

It costs North Carolina roughly $253 million to educate the children of unauthorized immigrants and according to estimates the state receives in turn $253 million in state and local taxes. On the page it looks like taxpayers end up covering the difference; however, there’s more to the picture. The economic benefits generated by immigrants are hard to trace and take longer to show up, and it appears that the trickle down effect is broader than the numbers show. For example, immigration can boost housing values and, according to the American Immigration Council, if all unauthorized immigrants were removed from North Carolina, the state would lose $14.5 billion in economic activity.

“The reality is that folks are coming to the United States for better economic opportunities, escaping persecution, and trying to better themselves,” says Raul Pinto, Staff Attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center. “They pay taxes and have become a fabric of their communities, and so it’s very important to highlight their contributions.”

Statement #5: They need to get in line like everyone else.

Currently, U.S. immigration policies favor college-educated individuals with highly skilled jobs. However, for many undocumented immigrants there are few paths to entering the country legally beyond guest worker visas that offer non-immigration avenues, meaning you cannot legally take steps toward citizenship. Individuals can ask for legal asylum but then the onus lies on them to prove persecution.

“Bottom line, the U.S. is the most generous country in the world when it comes to giving people permanent residency and citizenship,” says Summerlin-Long.  “We give out on average of about 1,000,000 immigrant visas, roughly 700,000 go to family members, and we do have five different categories of employment based visas, almost entirely for skilled workers. [However] the priorities we have adopted are not set up to meet labor needs, and when you share a border with a developing country, you are going to get a huge undocumented worker population.”

Ultimately, he explains, you can’t get into a line if there isn’t one available to you. 


Estimated unauthorized immigrant population, by state, 2014

Source: Pew Research Center estimates for 2014 based on augmented American Community Survey data from Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS).
Alexandra Drosu

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