WASHINGTON — Half a million foreign farmworkers could gain visas annually under a new plan that some U.S. growers believe doesn't go far enough.
Entering a political minefield, the conservative chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has written a bill that gives growers some of what they want in a farmworker visa program. Housing and transportation requirements are eased. Farmworker lawsuits are limited. Dairies, for the first time, become eligible.
"If we are really going to help American growers in the long term, we need to provide them a workable guest-worker program that will help them hire a legal workforce," declared Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.
Smith leads the 38-member House Judiciary Committee, giving him a lot of say in the perennial immigration debate. On Thursday, Smith convened a hearing where witnesses from North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington state all praised his American Specialty Agriculture Act.
"If bills creating a workable guest-worker program like this one ... are not passed, then the agricultural industry as we know it today will not exist," testified Chalmers Carr III, president of the Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, S.C.
Smith's bill would move the H-2A program from the Labor Department to the farmer-friendly Agriculture Department. It would streamline the applications that growers file for H-2A workers and would ease some requirements; for instance, growers could provide workers a housing voucher in lieu of housing.
The bill also constrains the federally funded Legal Services Corp., a perennial target of agribusiness, by prohibiting legal aid attorneys from suing on behalf of foreign guest workers until after formal mediation.
But in California, where growers employ the largest number of farmworkers, skepticism arises from across the political spectrum. Growers call the proposal insufficient, while farmworker allies consider the new bill overly harsh.
"Because the bill slashes wages and worker protections, it actually creates the incentive for employers to replace their current American workers with much cheaper (foreign) workers," warned Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.
Lofgren is the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee's immigration panel. One of the committee's senior Republicans, Rep. Dan Lungren of California, is planning to introduce a competing guest-worker bill as early as next week.
More broadly, any immigration-related bill faces rough sledding in the 112th Congress. Since a so-called comprehensive immigration package that included an agricultural guest-worker plan failed in 2007, lawmakers have largely ducked the topic.
Still, enforcement-oriented lawmakers are contemplating legislation that would require all U.S. employers to use an electronic employment verification system, called E-Verify. Tactically, the new guest-worker bill is meant to mollify growers' concerns about mandatory E-Verify.
Smith's bill would modify the existing H-2A agricultural visa program, which farmers have long criticized as inadequate and inefficient. In 2009, the Labor Department certified about 99,000 H-2A foreign workers. Texas and Florida led all other states in use of H-2A workers.
California growers make little use of the current program. For many years, California growers and their allies have pushed for a more ambitious program dubbed AgJobs that would give legal status to some 1.5 million illegal immigrants.
The AgJobs package would potentially put the farmworkers and family members on a pathway to permanent residence and U.S. citizenship, something the Smith bill does not.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY