WASHINGTON — Farmers and farm worker advocates alike voiced disdain Wednesday for a foreign guest-worker program that's largely ignored in California, the nation's leading farm state.
But with Congress stymied, significant reform appears unlikely for the H-2A program that's faced sharp criticism from the moment of its creation in 1986.
"We are here 16 years later, and apparently little has changed," said Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Solvang.
The H-2A program enables employers to bring in foreign workers. Californians rarely use it, though they hire upward of 390,000 agricultural workers annually.
Last year, California employers obtained only about 4,500 foreign guest workers through the H-2A program. Most of the foreign workers hired in California were sheepherders, Labor Department records show.
Last year, for instance, records show Stockton-based Cubiburu Livestock received approval to hire five foreign sheepherders, while the Visalia-based I.O.U. Sheep received approval to hire 10.
The foreign workers were to be paid about $750 a month.
Before bringing in foreign guest workers, the U.S. employers must first attempt to hire U.S. workers. In an effort to make this easier, the Labor Department last year established an online job registry. The registry, though, further underscores the unpopularity of H-2A in California.
Since Jan. 1, Labor Department records show, only 20 California employers have published the domestic job announcements that can be a precursor to seeking foreign guest workers. The Earlimart-based Triple E Livestock, for instance, is seeking sheepherders to work in Tulare, Kern and Los Angeles counties.
"(The shepherd) moves sheep to and about area assigned for grazing, prevents animals from wandering and becoming lost ... (and) beds down sheep near campsite or in a pen each night," the job announcement explains.
Farmers in other states use H-2A guest workers more aggressively, even as they grumble about the program's hassles. Nationwide, about 60,000 of the guest-worker visas are issued annually.
"The H-2A program is the only option for farmers if they want to employ a legal workforce," North Carolina Growers Association spokesman Lee Wicker told a House subcommittee. "Unfortunately, the H-2A program is not working well."
The House immigration policy and enforcement subcommittee chaired by Gallegly summoned Wicker to speak on all farmers' behalf.
Wicker, echoing complaints made by others, asserted the program is "slow, bureaucratic and frustrating." It has also become, Wicker said, unpredictable because of political shifts.
Under the George W. Bush administration, the Labor Department revised the program to make it friendlier to farmers. Guest worker wages fell and farmers had an easier time meeting housing and other requirements.
The Obama administration, in turn, reversed some of these changes. Now, for instance, employer-provided housing must be inspected before the guest workers arrive. Even so, farm worker advocates believe protections remain inadequate.
"Abuses abound," said Farmworker Justice Fund president Bruce Goldstein. "Workers are frequently not paid the wage rate they have been promised, they are routinely exposed to pesticides and other unsafe workplace conditions (and) they are housed in unsafe and unsanitary housing ... among other problems."
The hearing Wednesday, Gallegly said, was supposed to "plant the seed for needed reform" of the H-2A program. Congress, though, has largely ducked serious debate over immigration reform ever since a comprehensive bill collapsed in 2007, and the prospects for a new bill this year appear bleak.
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