Around 4,000 seasonal migrant workers are helping run Tennessee’s farms this year, through a federal visa program. The White House says it wants to let in fewer of these so-called low-skilled foreigners, in favor of highly educated immigrants. On one farm in Joelton, that’s a little worrying to the Mexican workers. But to third-generation tobacco farmer Joey Knight, it’s a huge concern.
Knight is pretty blunt about the local labor force: "American people have just got...this generation is lazy, there ain’t no other way to say it."
The 45-year-old Joelton native is nearing the end of tobacco season. He points out the next field that he and his men will harvest. "You can see how the leaves are starting to get a little yellow tint to them," he says. "It’s ready to be cut."
Knight says sometimes locals do show up at his 60-acre tobacco farm. But they usually work for a day, want to get paid, and then never come back. But workers who come on an H2A visa bring him peace of mind, even though they cost considerably more to employ.
"I’ve been using these guys for five or six years now. It’s worked out real well for me," he says. "It’s a lot more expensive to go this route, but I got the help when I need it."
This year he hired seven men, all from Mexico and most of them related, he says. Knight can pay up to $15,000 to sponsor a crew. He’s also required to give them a place to live for the seven months they’re here. In return, the men get guaranteed work at a federal rate of around $11 an hour.
But getting an H2A visa isn’t easy, even for those who’ve done it for years.
Twenty-nine year-old Edgar Solis has been coming to the U.S. for seasonal work since he was about 18. Each year, he says, he spends three days at the border, waiting for his interview at the U.S. consulate. The process is expensive, and includes visa and border crossing fees, bus fare, a hotel.
Solis then earns from $400 to $600 a week during tobacco season. He helps cut, stack and strip around 100,000 pounds of the most labor-intensive crop in Tennessee.
Solis says it makes some sense that U.S. lawmakers want to secure the country’s borders, "but I don’t believe any Americans will do the work we do," namely, cutting tobacco in the sweltering heat for $80 a day.
Like a lot of farmers across the country, before H2A, Knight hired illegal migrant workers. That was cheaper but also a lot less reliable, mainly because of other farmers.
He says one day he might have a good crew of seven or eight men. And then the next day, when he really needed them, maybe only two or three might show up. "[Another farmer] may have offered them more money, so they went there," he says.
But H2A visa holders can only work for the farm that sponsored them. And they’re heavily vetted. If caught having been in the U.S. illegally before, they can’t get back in. Even an unpaid speeding ticket will block re-entry.
In a large shed, the crew strips the first batch of tobacco that’s ready for market. They place the leaves in different boxes, according to quality. The lower grade is used for snuff. Knight says the best is for cigars.
"I usually grow a whole lot of — they call it — wrapper tobacco," he says. "We’ll have to look at every leaf and make sure there’s no hole in it."
Among the men stripping leaves is Solis’ father. He says in Spanish they have their own small tobacco plots back home in Mexico, which indigenous people work while they're in the U.S.
Solis says the immigration changes that the Trump administration wants would of course affect workers like him. And they are a little afraid, he says — but not too much.
Whatever happens, he’s confident "they’ll find other ways to survive." Unlike Knight. While he voted for Donald Trump, he acknowledges his farm now depends entirely on migrant workers coming back each season.