From ThePacker.com, Tom Karst, 12 Sept 2011.
Apparently seeking to win agriculture support for mandatory E-Verify legislation, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith on Sept. 8 introduced a new version of an agricultural guest worker program.
Smith, R-Texas, said his bill would create a guest worker program — called H-2C — that would be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of Labor.
Instead of requiring employers to provide housing, Smith said his program would allow employers to provide workers with a housing voucher.
In addition, the bill would stipulate that employers would pay the prevailing wage rate to guest workers, which he said is lower than the H-2A standard of the adverse effect wage rate but high enough not to depress the wages of American workers.
In addition, the proposed H-2C program would allow dairies and other year-round agriculture industries to use guest workers and would stipulate binding arbitration with H-2C workers.
The program would allow up to 500,000 guest worker visas per year in the program. Smith said American specialty crop growers hire about 800,000 workers per year, of which about half are illegal.
“This will be more than enough to make up for lost illegal workers,” Smith said.
Industry and Democratic leaders are unconvinced the legislation — H.R. 2847, also called the American Specialty Agriculture Act — is the answer.
Speaking at a Sept. 8 hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif,, said an expanded program will bog down the already unreliable guest worker system.
“If we had troubles getting 50,000 workers in for interviews, imagine how much trouble we will have with 10 times that many.”
Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Program for Florida Legal Service, told the committee Sept. 8 that H-2C would cost U.S. jobs and result in reduced wages for all farmworkers.
“It is a fairly substantial reform of H-2A but it retains the basic program structure,” said Craig Regelbrugge, vice president of government relations for the American Nursery and Landscaping Association, Washington, D.C.
“If the trade-off is that we get E-Verify and we get this as the only solution, it is a real problem.”
Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers, said the Smith bill has some good features to it, but it still has the limitations of the H-2A program.
“It has a cap of a half-million workers, which is not enough to replace all the workers we are likely to lose if E-Verify passes,” he said.
The other issue for agriculture is that the guest worker proposal is not part of the E-Verify proposal, Gasperini said.
“We could end up with E-Verify and have whatever solution that might be agreeable stalled and that’s a huge risk for agriculture,” he said.
Regelbrugge said the industry believes the H-2A structure — and the potential H-2C program — can’t bridge the gap between work force need and the existing available work force.
Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., has been floating a plan to create a guest worker plan that would be administered by the USDA, and Regelbrugge said that plan may offer agriculture desired flexibility.