Suppose you are a farmer in Belzoni, Miss., and you need eight farm workers.
If you look it up you will find that Mississippi is tied for 46th (with South Carolina) in the list of states' unemployment rates, with only Alaska, Nevada, and West Virginia having more joblessness. If you go a bit further, to county-by-county data, you will find that your county, Humphreys, ranks 79th out of 82 counties in your state, with an unemployment rate of 14.5 percent.
Since Belzoni is in the highly agricultural Delta area, and farm workers always have higher rates of unemployment than workers generally, you might think that it would be relatively easy to hire your eight workers locally.
But brothers Jeremy and Willard Jack — who are Belzoni farmers — did something else. They had eight workers flown in from the other side of the Atlantic and the other side of the Equator; the workers came from South Africa, and with last names like Potgleter, Maartens, and Jaarsveldt, they are presumably Afrikaners. They came under the H-2A program for temporary foreign farm workers.
I don't know the motivations of the Jacks, but I do know that if you want your farm workers to be of a particular ethnic group, all you have to do is to go to the U.S. Labor Department and say "I want eight H-2As from Peru or Pretoria" and they will let you bring in the ones you want.
As it turns out, as the reader can see from the photo, the recruited workers can look just like their employers. Jeremy Jack is on the right in the front row, and his brother is third from right. The photo is from the Delta Farm Press website.
In all fairness, the photo was published in November 2012, so the Jacks may have changed the hiring practices on their huge 7,000-acre spread. Several members of the family manage the place, including one who is probably a brother-in-law (Trey Koger) who has a PhD in Weed Science from Mississippi State University, an academic specialty that I had not encountered before.
I came across the photo in a search for news stories on South Africans in the H-2A program after reading about a single hired hand being recruited from South Africa by Ben Kuhn, a farmer near Dickinson, N.D., in the western part of the state.
The labor market in North Dakota is the exact opposite of the one in Mississippi; the oil patch there has driven the unemployment rate down to 3.1 percent (in June), the second lowest in the nation, so Kuhn had a better reason for using the H-2A program than the Jacks.
Kuhn brought in an unnamed man from South Africa under H-2A. He had to pay the worker a little over $15 an hour and provide him with housing and a "vehicle" — a sensible requirement in the Great Plains, but one I had never heard of before. Things went well for a while, Kuhn told the Dickinson Press, but then the worker (in his vehicle) was picked up for DUI, and Kuhn had to ferry him to various court appearances. After a while he disappeared, with Kuhn saying, naively I think, "I assume he just went home."
My guess is that the former hired man has become an illegal alien working in the oil patch and will do so for years to come.