York – The peach-growing industry in South Carolina depends on Mexican farmworkers, who every year arrive with H2A visas to a state where anti-immigrant sentiment has intensified.
"This lucrative industry would not exist without Hispanic labor and specifically workers from Mexico, who have come here legally every harvesttime for years," Russell Ott of the South Carolina Farm Bureau told Efe.
In June, Titan farm in Ridge Springs, the largest peach-growing operation in the Southeast, began selling sweet peaches to stores on the southern border for the first time in 17 years.
The bilateral accord signed in early 2011 gives U.S. farmers access to the Mexican market, which banned imports of peaches from the states of Georgia and South Carolina in 1994 for fear of pest.
"This is very important for South Carolina farmers becasuse Mexicans prefer the small peach produced in this region to the big ones preferred by consumers in the United States. It opens infinite opportunities to make money," Desmond Layne of Clemson University told Efe.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that after California, South Carolina is the second biggest producer of peaches in the country, with 90,000 tons per year.
According to Layne, known as "Dr. Peach," close to 1,000 mainly Mexican farmworkers are employed by the $35-million-a-year industry.
"They're farmworkers with experience, they know the harvest, they're dedicated, trustworthy, and always make an effort to do better. It wouldn't be the same without them," the expert said.
Among those experienced hands is Jose Martin Calva, who over the last 13 years has come to work at Titan with an H2A visa as a temporary farm laborer.
"We've grown a lot in recent years. I remember that in 1999 there were 45 of us and now we're more than 400. We work hard, from dawn sometimes until sundown, but we keep coming back because we do well at this," Calva told Efe.
He said, however, that it gets harder every year to renew the visa, due to the restrictions of both governments.
Another worker, Apolinar Hernandez, said that conditions for migrant peach harvesters both on the job and with regard to housing "are good."
But he expressed concern about the fate of undocumented migrants in South Carolina since the enactment in June of a new state immigration law, SB 20, that allows law enforcement officers to investigate immigration status and forces companies to verify the legal status of their employees.
"It's no longer the same, people are very afraid to go out in the street where they might meet up with a policeman, because they think they'll be arrested under the new law," Hernandez said.
According to Tammy Besherse, attorney for the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, SB 20 has sparked a hostile atmosphere even toward workers with documents.
"The law requires that they carry their documents but some are afraid of losing them while they're working. But if they don't carry them, they understand that they could be arrested because of their status as immigrants," Besherse said.