With Congress preparing to act on additional verification standards for the work status of employees, two new proposals seek to allow more people to enter the United States legally from other countries to work on farms. One bill would revise the existing H-2A agricultural worker program. The other would create a new visa category for foreign agricultural workers.
Farm organizations say the bills reflect acknowledgement from key members of Congress that agricultural employment is different from other sectors of the economy, and that any new verification requirements must be accompanied by programs that assure farmers of a legal work force.
“We’ve said all along that border security is important, but, at the same time, Congress must recognize the fact that most of the people who work on farms come from outside the United States,” California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) president Paul Wenger says.
“Farmers want to hire people we know have entered the country legally. The introduction of these two bills shows that we’ve gotten the attention of Congress.”
One Bill Looks Attractive
One of the bills, the American Specialty Agriculture Act by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), would modify the existing federal H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program in ways that Smith says would be responsive to the needs of American specialty growers.
CFBF Director of Labor Affairs, Bryan Little, says that while Smith acknowledges the need for large numbers of foreign agricultural workers on U.S. farms and ranches, his proposal still relies on the H-2A program, which has proven unworkable for most California farmers.
The existing program, with its bureaucratic requirements imposed by three different federal agencies, could not provide the hundreds of thousands of foreign employees that would be needed on California farms, Little says, even with the changes proposed in the Smith bill.
“The problem is immense, and it is hard to imagine that Smith’s proposal, if adopted, would be able to process workers and applications in time for farmers to get employees on the ground in time to harvest crops where the need is extremely time-sensitive,” he says.
The other bill, the Legal Agricultural Workforce Act of 2011 by Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River), would create a new “W” visa category for foreign agricultural workers and allow for their admission to the United States for 10 months in any 12-month period.
Lungren’s bill has more elements that are acceptable to CFBF and other agricultural groups, Little says. For example, it would allow workers to move freely among employers who are certified by USDA to employ workers in the program, and allow agricultural employers to employ workers at market wage rates, including market-rate worker benefits.
But it also contains provisions that are cause for concern, Little says, particularly one that would allow foreign workers to work in the United States for only 10 months of the year. This would be particularly problematic in year-round agricultural operations such as dairies, he says.
Smith’s bill was slated for discussion in the Immigration Subcommittee of the House Labor Committee. Lungren’s bill was scheduled to be introduced into the House as well.
Paul Schlegel, director of immigration reform for the American Farm Bureau Federation, says AFBF has taken no position on either bill.
“They are both good-faith efforts to address our problems, and we want to work with any interested member in building on either or both of those bills as a way to solve agriculture’s problems,” Schlegel says.
Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. Contact Adler at firstname.lastname@example.org.