AgJOBS, H-2A, Labor, Visas

Questioning Georgia’s Plans for a Foreign Guest Worker Program

From Macon.com, The Telegraph, Bruce Goldstein, 24 Jun 2011.

As commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Agriculture, Gary Black oversees more than 600 employees and the state’s $69 billion industry. He regulates grocery stores and food warehouses and leads the marketing of Georgia’s home grown agricultural products.

He had a lot to do even before Black found himself at the center of the country’s growing immigration controversy.

Last month, Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 87 into law. Starting July 1, the law will allow police to check the immigration status of criminal suspects and require businesses with more than 10 employees to use the E-Verify program in order to check whether workers are in the country legally. The legislation also requires Georgia’s Department of Agriculture to research the implementation of a state-run guest worker program.

The first thing that Commissioner Black and his researchers will learn is that Georgia already has access to a guest worker program, the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program. The H-2A program, overseen by the federal government, requires active participation by the Georgia Department of Labor to ensure the proper processing of employers’ applications for guest workers and ensure that jobs are made available to qualified U.S. citizens and immigrants. So if Georgia designs its own guest worker program, Georgia taxpayers will be paying twice.

Black seems to understand he’s been charged with duplicating efforts, saying “Just how that (the proposed state guest worker program) interfaces with the federal program is certainly a question that is out there.”

What the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s research would uncover is a long history in this country and in other nations of massive problems with any guest worker program. Guest workers cannot switch employers. They are dependent on employers to obtain their visas and to invite them back the next year. Their “non immigrant” status leaves them without bargaining power and creates a fear of challenging illegal treatment which encourages employers to prefer guest workers over available American workers and helps keep wages low for both.

Because guest workers cannot earn citizenship or the right to vote, they lack the political representation that their employers enjoy. The H-2A law contains modest protections to prevent exploitation of guest workers and discrimination against U.S. workers, but rampant violations persist.

The problems in administering a guest worker program and protecting workers against inevitable abuses are compounded by thorny issues of relationships with the foreign governments whose workers receive the visas. For these reasons, our Constitution places such immigration issues in the hands of the federal government. However, Georgia is not alone in its misguided effort to enact a state solution to a federal problem. Half the legislatures in the country are considering some sort of immigration proposal. Utah recently enacted a law without a research phase that requires a pilot project for a state-run guest worker program.

There’s a better solution to this problem than each state proposing its own, flawed system or researching how to establish one. Georgia’s leaders should demand that Congress adopt lasting, bipartisan solutions, like AgJOBS (the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act).

AgJOBS developed after years of unproductive conflict in Congress about guest worker programs and immigration. Agricultural employers need a stable, legal, productive workforce. Farmworkers, half of whom are undocumented, need an immigration status that enables them to bargain for better wages and working conditions and challenge illegal treatment. Agribusiness employers and farmworker organizations reached an agreement with a bipartisan group in Congress on a realistic, effective solution. Unfortunately, its passage has been stalled due to congressional gridlock on immigration reform.

AgJOBS would reform the existing H-2A visa program to better protect American workers, while providing employers with prompt access to guest workers when they’re needed. It would also give current undocumented farmworkers an opportunity to earn legal immigration status, and eventually citizenship, through continued work in agriculture.

AgJOBS would grant some security to the men and women in Georgia’s fields performing the back-breaking labor that helps put food on America’s tables. It would help America’s agricultural industry continue to prosper and it could lead the way as a model for federal immigration reform.

Bruce Goldstein is president of Farmworker Justice, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that works to improve living and working conditions for migrant and seasonal farmworkers: www.farmworkerjustice.org.

Source: Macon.com, The Telegraph, “Questioning Georgia’s plans for a foreign guest worker program” by Bruce Goldstein, 24 Jun 2011.

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