Debate over guest worker program heats up again in Congress

May 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

At issue is the H-2A visa program, which allows agricultural growers to legally hire temporary  foreign workers. Rooted in the controversial bracero program that recruited thousands of Mexicans to work on U.S. farms during the 1940s and ’50s, it was overhauled in 1986 to protect field workers against wage and housing abuses.
Growers say the current H-2A program is too expensive and cumbersome, requiring them to file multiple applications with state and federal labor officials to help meet their needs for legal labor. They are sometimes asked to predict a year in advance how many workers they will need, even though crop yields and harvest times can vary seasonally. They also must demonstrate that they tried to hire US workers by posting ads before they applying for visas. Now growers are asking Congress to roll back changes made to the program last year by the Obama administration. The new rules leave them with little choice but to hire illegal workers or watch their crops rot (to quote Reagan). But relaxing the regulations isn’t the solution. It might encourage a few more growers to apply for temporary workers, but not nearly enough to replace the 1 million illegal farm workers currently in the fields and orchards. The H-2A program provides only about 3% of the total agricultural workforce. Instead, rolling back protections would invite abuse by reducing government oversight.  Or Congress could revive the Agriculture Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act. AgJOBS isn’t an amnesty. It would allow undocumented workers already harvesting crops to legalize their immigration status as long as they work at least 6 months in the US during 2007 and 2008. They would be required to undergo a background check, pay a fine and work in the fields for at least 3 more years. Growers are understandably frustrated. They can’t find Americans willing to do the backbreaking work, and the H-2A program can’t replace a permanent workforce that is currently undocumented and vulnerable. Farm work is hard. Congress shouldn’t make it harder by rolling back protections for guest workers, nor by pushing migrant workers deeper underground to do the work few Americans choose to do.  (LA Times excerpts)

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