From NewsOK.com, Jaclyn Cosgrove, email@example.com, 24 Jul 2011.
Expensive program brings foreign laborers to work when Americans are unavailable.
It’s cheaper to hire an American.
Pecan farmers Chuck Selman and his son, Chad, would rather hire local help than pay thousands of dollars to legally bring a foreign laborer to work on their farm.
But, finding legal U.S. residents interested in harvesting pecans has never been an easy task.
“Basically we couldn’t find any labor in the area,” said Chad Selman, operator of at Skiatook. “I was spending more time running back and forth to town to try and find guys to come work … than I was actually harvesting the crop.”
So, in 2007, the Selmans started using the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Labor Certification visa program to hire workers from other countries, legally. The program exists in case there is a shortage of U.S. citizens to perform agricultural labor.
The government reported that during the 2010 fiscal year, about 49 agricultural companies in Oklahoma hired 337 foreign laborers through the H-2A program. Nationally, about 56,000 such visas were granted.
However, farmers, lawyers and human rights activists have complaints about the program and its counterpart, the H-2B visa program for nonagricultural jobs. Critics claim both programs are burdensome and expensive, and also are abused in ways that point to larger issues within the U.S. immigration debate.
Eight workers needed
The Selmans need eight workers, but aren’t optimistic they’ll find a U.S. citizen to employ.
“Some of these guys who would show up — nobody in their right mind would hire these people,” Chad Selman said of U.S. applicants. “You can tell they’re not going to be good workers, and it’s a terrible interview, but you’re required by law to hire them, unless you have something by law that says you don’t have to.”
An H-2A employer must continue to hire U.S. citizens who apply for a job until the H-2A workers have finished half of their work contract.
When the Selmans first used the program in 2007, one U.S. citizen came to their farm for an interview. A 2007 ice storm interrupted harvesting for two years. In 2009, no one responded to newspaper ads seeking U.S. workers. Last year, the Selmans received four applications.
“And, of course, every single one of them, we said to them, ‘Come back at this day, at this time,’ and not a single one of them showed up,” Chad Selman said. “They’re kind of here more just for the interview … so they are able to still get their unemployment check from the government.”
Anyone receiving unemployment benefits from the state of Oklahoma must apply for at least two jobs per week. If offered a job they could reasonably be expected to do, the recipient must take the job, said spokesman John Carpenter of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.
David North, a Center for Immigration Studies fellow who blogs in favor of tighter restrictions on immigration, says farmers complaining they cannot find U.S. citizens to perform agricultural labor is not new.
“We’ve been hearing this for 50 years,” said North, assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Labor under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. But, he argues the H-2A program exploits foreign workers and potentially displaces American workers.
“Particularly because of the recession, we really don’t need to bring people from overseas or over the Rio Grande because we have plenty of Americans looking for jobs, some of them on unemployment,” North said. “If you poke around, you’ll find legal residents to do this job.”
North said if American farmers paid better wages, more U.S. citizens might be willing to work.
H-2A workers are paid the highest wage possible taking into consideration the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which is the minimum wage the Department of Labor determines for agricultural workers; the prevailing wage for the position they’re filling; or the federal or state minimum wage.
Records show about half of the H-2A workers in Oklahoma last year were paid between $9 and $10 an hour. All of the jobs paid at least $7.25 but no more than $12 hourly.
Chuck Selman started his pecan farm 30 years ago. To harvest the 500,000 pounds of pecans they expect to produce this year, the Selmans likely will bring eight foreign laborers from Mexico.
Through the H-2A program, the Selmans will pay for transportation, food and housing. They will also pay a third party, an H-2A agent, a few thousand dollars to process their paperwork. They also must pay to advertise the jobs though they are skeptical any will be filled by Americans.
Although expensive and complicated, the H-2A program is the only legal outlet, the Selmans say.