Instead, Monroe arrested Eury and White and forced them to help with the work. The department also seized the Subaru the two had driven to the field, Monroe said. But he lost his job as a North Carolina rural manpower representative , a kind of agrarian matchmaker who helps farmers find seasonal workers to plant, tend, and harvest their crops. But Eury turned it into an opportunity. A month after being fired, Eury founded what would become his biggest and best-known outfit, the North Carolina Growers Association.
Eury would do essentially the same job he had done for the state. Except this time, the workers would come from Mexico on H-2 visas. And Eury would collect fees on every one. White soon joined him in the venture.
Cold As Ice
To encourage legal employment, the bill also resuscitated the little-used H-2 guest worker program, which dated from a generation earlier, creating a special category just for agricultural workers, H-2A, and another for nonagricultural workers, H-2B. Critically, it also contained provisions for special associations that could apply for visas for all of their members at once.
Rather than relying on local workers who might make demands about their working conditions, or risk hiring undocumented workers in an era of immigration raids, farmers could now get government permission to bring in foreign laborers who were desperate for the work. When their visa expired, they had to leave the country. The North Carolina Growers Association offered busy farmers a turnkey guest worker experience. It would serve as a joint employer, applying for all the visas its members wanted en masse , busing the workers across the border from Mexico, and then moving them from farm to farm as needed.
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And in addition to a membership fee, the growers association could charge for each and every visa, rolling in the cost of transportation and a nice chunk of overhead. In , the North Carolina Growers Association brought in its first batch of visa holders: workers for a handful of farmers, more than double the number that all the farms in North Carolina combined had imported the previous year. By , the association was getting approval from the Labor Department to bring in 10, or more workers a year. His team included Jay Hill, another rural manpower representative with agricultural ties thanks to his father, a prominent tobacco and sweet potato farmer in the state.
He rounded out his inner circle with Lee Wicker, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who had been working as a rural manpower representative, and Mike Bell, a Spanish speaker who had lived in Latin America and had also been working in the same agency. Grant took the job Eury vacated and rose quickly; by the mids he was running the whole division.
For years, employers in North Carolina obtained approvals for more such guest worker visas than employers in any other state. By law, jobs must go to qualified American applicants before any H-2 workers can be hired. Grant did not respond to requests for an interview. A spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Commerce said the agency is in compliance with federal law. Gore said he noticed that many of his colleagues did not even bother referring local workers to North Carolina Growers Association jobs, despite their obligation to do so.
He said he quickly discovered one of the reasons why.
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When he called the association to recommend a U. Gore said he recorded some of the interviews to document how unusual they were and handed them over to state auditors. But with few if any local job applicants to worry about, the growers association was free to bring in foreign workers by the thousands.
In the month period starting July , for example, the growers association got permission to import more than 12, guest workers for jobs in North Carolina. In , sensing more opportunity, Eury opened a new venture , the International Labor Management Corp. Soon it was helping clients gain approval for thousands of visas every year.
See a Problem?
Other companies controlled by Eury have capitalized on additional corners of the visa market, making money off transportation and recruiting. Even with more competition, in , he was still responsible for securing one in eight of all H-2 guest worker visa certifications. Vass is a little country town.
Its lone stoplight meters traffic coming off Route 1 against the trickle pulling out of the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. Get used to it. Stepping off the bus after the long ride from the border, guest workers enter the growers association's nondescript warehouse — and find an almost Disneyesque re-creation of a two-story Mexican hacienda , featuring faux adobe walls, rustic beams, and an imposing balcony on which a Spanish-speaking association official, often Hill , barks instructions at the crowd below. Soon the workers will be loaded onto different buses and driven to the far corners of North Carolina, where they will pick blueberries, pack cucumbers, pull flowers off leafy tobacco plants, or topple Christmas trees.
Many workers stay from early spring until winter, jumping from crop to crop, farm to farm, as the harvest seasons progress. In a typical year, his companies meet the labor needs of clients across more than 20 states. Every year, he brings in thousands upon thousands of workers, most of them young men, virtually all of them Mexican, tracking their movements, phone numbers, home addresses, past jobs, and job performance in massive databases. It is a logistical miracle, one informed by his deep and detailed understanding of the H-2 program.
Current and former state employees recall Eury setting that tone almost immediately, bringing an aide to the powerful Sen. Eury, who served on the Vass town council, and his deputy, Wicker, have testified before Congress many times, speaking not just for H-2 agents but for farmers in general, and the two have sat on numerous influential industry boards. The two men at times have been brusque, even belligerent, demanding immediate responses and lashing out when someone tried to stymie them.
Eury is a generous political donor, almost entirely to Republicans.
Then Eury sued him, accusing him of lobbying in favor of amnesty and demanding his money back. Worker advocates were against him. They sued many times on behalf of aggrieved H-2 workers who complained of wage theft, discrimination, dismal living conditions, or filthy drinking water. Still, worker advocates continued to sue Eury and his clients, costing them millions of dollars.
In , his growers association reluctantly agreed to let the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an agricultural union, represent guest workers in collective bargaining. It seemed like a loss for Eury and his clients, but in many ways it ended up benefiting them. Immediately, the stream of lawsuits that the growers association and its farmers were once forced to litigate stopped.
Perhaps his greatest victories, however, have come from using the courts to shape existing regulations to his advantage. Sued by female workers who said their housing was inadequate, Eury won an appeals court precedent that partially shielded his clients from discrimination laws, allowing them to hire only men for some jobs. He later won exemptions from age discrimination statutes as well, allowing his clients to cherry-pick young workers to come work in the U.
He sued. Federal Judge William L. Then Eury sued to stop those rules as well. The distinction is crucial, because under the provisions of the H-2 visa program, nonagricultural guest workers get overtime pay, but agricultural guest workers do not. Over the decades, Eury has also used the courts to settle personal scores. He twice sued his former employer, the state of North Carolina, after he was fired for the marijuana bust, seeking unpaid overtime and claiming he should have been eligible for unemployment.
Many sources reached for comment declined to speak, expressing concern that Eury would sue them. The National Weather Service warned of a heat index well above , cautioning against exertion in the sun. But Ordaz, 40, was determined to provide for his family back in Mexico. Hour after hour, Ordaz and the other workers laced their way through dense rows of tobacco, removing the broad, sweet-smelling leaves and depositing them in a trailer pulled by a tractor.
Ordaz was feeling terrible.
During a short break at about , he sunk down onto a makeshift wooden bench under a shade cover between two tobacco barns. He held his head. At one point, he removed his shoes and socks and doused his feet with water. Then he disappeared.
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