The Trump administration is moving ahead with an overhaul of the guest worker program that admits hundreds of thousands of temporary farm workers each year, easing access to agricultural labor even as even as its conservative allies push for a crackdown.
Changing the H-2A visa system for temporary farm workers has been a top priority for Central Valley growers and others around the country, who have been struggling with a severe labor shortage. A 2017 California Farm Bureau Federation survey reported that more than half of farmers experienced labor shortages last summer. The guest worker issue has split the Republican party, however, becoming a major stumbling block in House Republicans' efforts to reach a deal on an immigration bill.
With a breakthrough in Congress unlikely, the agricultural industry is pinning its hopes on the executive branch to make changes. The regulatory process has just begun, but all indications suggest the Trump administration will put forward a more farm-friendly proposal than what’s been proposed by immigration hardliners in the House.
In a May 24 statement, the secretaries of Agriculture, Labor, State and Homeland Security announced they "are working in coordination to propose streamlining, simplifying, and improving the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program – reducing cumbersome bureaucracy and ensuring adequate protections for U.S. workers." The goal, according to those who have discussed the issue with government officials, is to issue a proposed rule in the coming months, followed by a comment period, with the regulation finalized by 2020.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has been particularly outspoken about the need to overhaul the visa system, with farmers' priorities in mind. "The current H-2A is cumbersome, convoluted and does not work for many producers," Perdue said at the department's annual Agricultural Outlook Forum in February. He also boasted at the event that he had "poached" a former American Farm Bureau Federation lobbyist to work on the immigration issue "full time."
According to Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel at Western Growers, which represents produce farmers in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, the administration has been "soliciting stakeholder input for more than a year." Perdue has been on a national tour, including a recent stop in Colorado that ended up focusing on labor issues. Department of Labor officials are also participating in roundtables on the H-2A system, specifically, including three this month in the California agricultural hubs of Salinas, Santa Rosa and Napa.
The agricultural industry has a long wish list for the Trump administration. Shortly after Purdue was sworn in in April 2017, the National Council of Agricultural Employers presented him with three pages of bullet points outlining the actions the administration could take, absent legislation. They include everything from digitizing the visa application process and advertising requirements for job openings, to changing housing requirements for workers and the way their wages are calculated.
The growing angst about H-2A the program has come as the number of guest workers coming through the system has surged — it nearly doubled between the 2013 fiscal year and 2016 fiscal year. California has been a big part of that upswing. "Four or five years ago, California was not one of the top users of H2-A. Now I believe we’re number 4," said Resnick, "The growth has really been in the west."
Currently, Florida sits atop the list of states with the most positions filled by H-2A visas, followed by Georgia, Washington and California.
National Council of Agricultural Employers President and CEO Michael Marsh said the rapid increase in demand for visas is the result of the surge in deportations of undocumented immigrants under President Obama, then accelerated under President Trump. That's prompted fewer people from Latin America and elsewhere to attempt to cross the border in search of farm work, he believes.
Economic and social trends in Mexico are also at play, researchers have found.
With "the unauthorized workforce getting smaller, folks coming in under H-2A visa continues to grow," said Marsh. "It’s unwieldy for the farmer, but he has to have someone to harvest his crops."
Other players in the immigration debate have their own, very different complaints with the H-2A system. Farm worker groups believe it leads to exploitation. The H-2A system "should be called the 'harnessed 2 abuse' system because it already ties farm workers to single, specific employers," United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez said in a May press release. "So when H-2A workers speak out about being abused the growers to which they are tied can make sure it will cost them their jobs, their homes and their visas."
Immigration hardliners, who want to reduce immigration to the United States, argue access to guest workers drives down wages for domestic labor.
In the House, conservative Republicans have taken the latter position. They've rallied around immigration legislation, sponsored by Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, that would address DACA, a program Trump terminated last fall, but also added on a host of other immigration enforcement measures, including a new, capped system for temporary workers. And it would require employers to use the E-Verify system to confirm their workers are in the country legally. That's a deal breaker for California growers and other parts of the agricultural industry and, by extension, Republicans that represent agriculture-heavy districts.
After months of talks, House Republicans still have not been able to overcome that stalemate on the farm labor and employer-related provisions, prompting a rebellion among more moderate members.
To quell that uprising, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Tuesday night that the chamber would vote on a GOP compromise immigration proposal as well as the Goodlatte bill. Neither is expected to pass.
That creates an opening for the Trump administration to take action on its own, although any regulatory changes are likely to run up against the same disagreements.
Details of the possible new H-2A regulation remain scarce, and the USDA did not reply to a request for more information. But the agency appears to be trying to take a larger role in the program. "It sounds like [the agency is] interested in being the portal" for H-2A visas, said Marsh, "instead of having to apply through three different entities."
That's likely to alarm advocates of stricter immigration limits, like the Center for Immigration Studies, which has already expressed concern the USDA is too beholden to the agricultural industry on issues like immigration.
United Farm Workers, too, has raised red flags about the regulatory effort. "It appears Donald Trump ... and his administration are suggesting farm workers in the H-2A program be paid less, further undermining the poor pay and conditions already plaguing domestic farm workers in the United States," Rodriguez said in his May statement.
Farm groups, however, believe there is a much better chance for the administration to make regulatory changes than for Congress to amend the law on guest workers.
"We would like to see as much as we can fix on the administrative side," said Marsh, while acknowledging there are changes to the program only Congress can make. But "making legislative changes is not the prettiest thing to do ... as you see with what’s going on in Congress right now."
Correction: The story has been updated with the correct last name of United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez.