Growing number of migrant farmworkers in Tennessee helping Ag economy

Special Reports

SPRINGFIELD, Tenn. (WKRN) – There’s a growing number of migrant farmworkers in Tennessee and state officials said that number will continue to increase. 

The Fuqua family is rooted in this life as are the crops in their 1,500-acre farm in Springfield. 

“Drive combine, whatever possible it is that I need to do, that’s what I do,” said Cindy Fuqua. “But my main job is shuffling dollars.”

It’s a job she now handles without her husband, Jay, who passed away about three years ago.

“Stood behind each other through thick and thin,” she said as her voice broke. “The mean ol’ cancer got him.”

Their family now works to continue the Fuqua legacy with the help of migrant workers who they said are like family, too.

“For years we tried to work the local guys and we just… you put out a big crop and you don’t have dependable help so we had to do something and we started the H2A program,” Jacob Fuqua said. 

The H2A visa program allows farm workers into the United States for a specific number of months per year.

“A migrant worker is just that – one that migrates from city to city and state to state and there is no contract holding them to that job,” said Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Employment Program Specialist Lance Butler. “H2A workers – they are considered migrants – however, they’re contracted with the employer to stay there for a specific amount of time.”

Butler said most migrant farmworkers come from Latin American countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Columbia, and Peru.

“The difference is we’re able to track the H2A visas because we’re federally mandated. The migrant seasonal farmworker, there is no regulatory tracking that we have to do,” Butler said. “We’re a nonsignificant state.”

He said that means the population of migrant seasonal farmworkers is below 10 percent of the population of Tennesseans that visit an American Jobs Center. 

Migrant farmworkers went from about nine in 2009 to more than 100 in 2018.

“It’s my opinion that there’s more in the state than what register in the American job centers,” said Butler.

The number of H2A visa workers average about 440 per year for the three most recent years of available data.

“The trend is it’s going up – substantially going up,” Butler said. “From 2015 to now, it’s only increasing and it’s only continuing to increase – at least in Tennessee – with the legalization of hemp.”

A farmer has to petition the federal government for an H2A visa worker, pay for their travel to and from the states, and provide housing that’s been inspected by state officials.

“They have to show that there isn’t a Tennessean workforce that can do the job,” Butler said. “These employers are primarily in rural areas. In these rural areas in these counties, the Tennessee workforce pool for people who want to do agricultural work – because of the intensity that the work entails – they don’t want to do it.” 

Not all employers have played by the rules. A man who pleaded guilty to charges stemming from an ICE raid at a Bean Station, Tennessee slaughterhouse was sentenced to 18 months in prison in July. 

John Brantley pleaded guilty to tax evasion, wire fraud and employing undocumented immigrants at Southeastern Provision in Grainger County. The facility was the target of an April 2018 raid where 97 people were found to be subject to removal from the country.

The raid became the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center against individual ICE agents, alleging they “violated the workers’ constitutional rights because they arrested the immigrants solely on the basis of their race and without probable cause,” according to the SPLC web site.

Because H2A workers are under contract, they can’t just up and leave their job.

“That is a possibility, however, there’s regulation that states if a worker leaves for any reason, whether it’s to go back home for an emergency, or they just leave, the farmer or the agent has to notify the Department of Homeland Security indicating what happened so if they pop up somewhere else it can be handled accordingly,” Butler said. “It [contract] states that if you leave for any reason you have to let the farmer know. If not, you can be deported back to your home country.” 

Butler said employers of H2A visa workers, the majority of farms in Tennessee, are strictly regulated. 

Fuqua said he doesn’t know how the farm would continue without their local employees and 19 H2A visa workers. 

“The guys in Mexico, they have to be very good citizens, they do background checks and everything,” Jacob Fuqua said. “We’ve had them for eight years now and never run into a bad guy and where they’re from, they don’t have a lot of opportunity to provide for their family so it’s a win-win for both of us.” 

The multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry makes up about 13% of the state’s economy.

“If we didn’t have the H2A visa system in my opinion, Tennessee would lose out on a lot of labor and a lot of money that otherwise we have,” Butler said.

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