Nov 24, 2010 12:20 PM by Kate Durio
Concern over foreign laborers taking american jobs is fueling the national debate of immigration reform. But here in Louisiana, farmers say we should be expressing our southern hospitality to foreign workers for the work they are doing for our economy, right here in Acadiana.
Louisiana has the second highest number of H2A workers in the country. Second only to North Carolina. That's more than California. More than Texas.
"There are whole industries in Louisiana that would cease to function if it wasn't for immigrant labor," says Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana.
Acadiana farmers say one reason Louisiana is so dependent on H-2A workers in the agricultural industry, is the length of season. Sugar cane season alone takes 10 months.
"the reason we hire migrant workers on a farm is for several reasons but the main reason is reliability. Availability would be next and then third they don't mind the long hours. They are willing to work the long hours. They are here to work," says sugar cane farmer Ronnie Gonsoulin.
But before any of these jobs can be given to an H-2A worker, the farmer must offer the job up to any domestic workers who apply.
"We're not allowed to displace people who want to work. Local labor will be hired if they want to work. But how do you find those people?" Says Gonsoulin.
"I would say 99% of the time the workers that apply for jobs domestically, they don't show up," says Brian Breaux from the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation.
The process to hire local workers is still much easier for the farmers since the process for hiring H-2A's is often cumbersome for employers and confusing for all involved including immigration lawyers sifting through the policies.
"This year was laughable. The department of labor changed its regulations again for farm workers... It's gobbly goop. I mean what are they trying to tell me? How could anyone figure that out?" says Immigration Lawyer, Jeri Ann H. Flynn.
A sentiment that is shared by farmers.
"Its more difficult. The laws are changing. Its a moving target because they are constantly changing," says Gonsoulin.
A convoluted process and too few resources leave farmers confused and vulnerable.
"Most farmers use an H-2A recruiter or agency to go ahead because...these agencies keep up with the latest of these regulations and what needs to be done," says Breaux.
Once the H-2A workers make it to the Louisiana fields, a strong bond forms between employer and employees.
"Working with them the long hours, riding with them in the truck, even eating lunch with them has really helped us to learn their language," adds Gonsoulin.
"They're nice. They teach me, I teach them too. I learn english they learn spanish. We're good." says Sergio, an H2A worker from Mexico who works for Gonsoulin in the sugar cane fields.
For those migrant workers abiding by our immigration laws to work here, like Sergio, the Southern hospitality seems to be amiss. So farmers say it is important to remember our values.
"This is a guest worker program. These people come as our guest and come work for us and we treat them like guests," suggests Breaux.
"I have grandchildren I would trust them taking care of my grandchildren if I had to leave for an hour or an hour and a half or a couple of hours. I am that trustworthy of them," says Gonsoulin.
Tomorrow night we'll share with you Sergio's motivations for coming to work in Louisiana and what life is like for a migrant worker in the fields of Acadiana.
-Written and Produced by Kate Durio