Farmers still fighting for immigrant guest-worker program

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 9, 2012 

WASHINGTON — California and Southern farmers renewed their case Thursday for some kind of an agricultural guest-worker program, but they're sailing against the wind.

Make that a hurricane.

Buffeted by campaign-season currents and the inherent complications around immigration, the farmers this year face excruciatingly long odds as they seek a guest-worker goal that's eluded them since at least 1995. Still, they lobby on.

"You have to be optimistic, don't you?" said Modesto, Calif.-area farmer Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. "Stranger things have happened."

Wenger joined H. Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, and Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black in urging a House panel to overhaul an existing worker visa program and boost farmers' access to foreign labor. Without the fix, they say, growers' problems will proliferate.

"Experience shows us there is no realistic prospect of a domestic work force for agriculture," Wenger told the House subcommittee on immigration policy and enforcement. "We in California have learned the hard way that few Americans seek agricultural jobs."

Nationwide, farmers are estimated to employ somewhere between 900,000 and 1.2 million illegal immigrants.

Farmers widely denounce the current program, called H-2A, which enables farmers to legally hire foreign workers. Although North Carolina growers this year will legally employ more than 7,000 foreign workers with H-2A visas, Wicker called the program "costly, unpredictable and administratively flawed."

In California, the nation's biggest farm state, farmers only secure about 3,500 workers annually through H-2A. In Florida and Texas combined, the visa program provides a total of only about 8,600 workers annually.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, agreed Thursday that the current visa program is "plagued with problems." That's about where the consensus stops.

Following fits and starts in the 1990s, advocates for farmers and farm workers in 2003 unveiled a grand political compromise they dubbed AgJobs. The measure would have streamlined H-2A and granted legal status to upward of 1.5 million illegal farm workers, potentially putting them on the path toward U.S. citizenship.

At one point, as many as 63 senators publicly supported the AgJobs proposal. In 2007, though, congressional efforts to move a broader immigration bill that included AgJobs collapsed, in part under weight of the claims that the bill offered "amnesty."

"We don't use the term 'AgJobs' anymore," Wenger said. "It became so tainted."

For now, the former AgJobs alliance between farmer and farm-worker groups has broken apart, as farmers seek H-2A reforms without the tradeoff of accepting legalization and a pathway toward U.S. citizenship. Farmworker Justice Fund president Bruce Goldstein, in turn, denounced these worker visa proposals Thursday as leading to "diminished working conditions and protections because of reduced government oversight."

This broken alliance significantly complicates the prospects for legislation getting through both the House and Senate.

Nonetheless, instead of adding a guest-worker visa proposal to a larger but dormant immigration reform bill, proponents now hope to add something to a bill mandating the use of the electronic E-Verify employment verification system.

"Without something to address agriculture's needs, mandatory E-Verify would simply destroy the agricultural industry," warned Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.

In the House, Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., has authored one guest-worker proposal that he wants to add to the E-Verify bill. Its prospects are uncertain, as farm-worker advocates dislike it and Smith, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has his own competing proposal.

Lungren, in turn, has said that a mandatory employee verification effort cannot survive politically unless it includes satisfactory guest-worker protections for agriculture.

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Republicans push for mandatory E-Verify; farmers not so sure

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Democrats' hearing criticizes mandatory E-Verify bill

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