From LATimes.com, The Los Angeles Times, Editorial, 9 May 2011.
The debate over a guest-worker program is heating up again in Congress. At issue is the H-2A visa program, which allows agricultural growers to legally hire temporary or seasonal foreign workers. Rooted in the controversial braceroprogram 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 tooexpensive and cumbersome, requiring them to file multiple applications with state and federal labor officials to help meet their needs for legal labor. They are asked to predict months or even a year in advance how many workers they will need, even though crop yields and harvest times can vary from season to season. They also must demonstrate that they tried to hire U.S. workers by posting online ads before they can apply for the visas.
Now growers are asking Congress to roll back changes made to the program last year by the Obama administration. They say the new rules, including an increase in the average pay of field workers and a requirement that government officials inspect worker housing, have made the program impractical and left them with little choice but to hire illegal workers or watch their crops rot.
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, according to Western Growers, a trade association that represents farmers in California and Arizona. Instead, rolling back protections would invite abuse by reducing government oversight.
There is another approach. Congress should revive the Agriculture Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act. AgJOBS isn’t an amnesty for illegal immigrants. It would allow undocumented workers who are already harvesting crops to legalize their immigration status as long as they worked at least six months in the U.S. during 2007 and 2008. They would be required to undergo a background check, pay a fine and work in the fields for at least three 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.