Monday kickoff: Where's Ag in guest worker program?
Legal Hispanic farmworkers on a farm in Malone under the H2A program. Photo: David Sommerstein
The news leading the headlines over the weekend heralded an agreement in principle among eight bipartisan Senators, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer, regarding a guest worker program. It would target low-skilled jobs in industries like construction, hotels, and restaurants. According to the New York Times, the federal government would hand out 20,000 to 200,000 visas in this category, depending on the unemployment rate and many other factors:
Labor groups wanted to ensure that guest workers would not be paid less than the median wage in their respective industries, and the two sides compromised by agreeing that guest workers would be paid the higher of the prevailing industry wage as determined by the Labor Department or the actual employer wage.
Under the deal, guest workers would be allowed to pursue a path to citizenship and to change jobs after they arrived in the United States.
The agreement still has plenty of time to fall apart before it's built into broad immigration reform.
But there's so far been little discussion about what to do about agriculture's primary guest worker program, H2A. High profile reports in USA Today and the Los Angeles Times recently have documented how bureaucratic and in need of reform it is. From the L.A. Times:
Employers say that the H-2A agricultural visa program…is broken and that the complicated rules and high costs push employers to hire undocumented workers. Labor advocates say that the programs create a group of second-class citizens who are brought here to do grueling and often dangerous work without protection against abuses.
Placating both sides will be a challenge.
NCPR reported on the challenges of the H2A program in 2008.
Completely left out of H2A now is dairy. Dairy farms need year-round workers to milk the cows. The North Country congressional delegation has been working for years to pass a guest worker program that would solve the increasing reliance of dairy farms on undocumented, mostly Hispanic, labor.
It seems clear that agriculture, and more specifically dairy, is a huge piece in puzzle of immigration reform. But in the guest worker plans crafted so far, agriculture has yet to be folded into any grand bargain.
Tags: agriculture, dairy, farming, immigration, mondaykickoff, politics, washington