Politics & Government

Bush considering easing rules on foreign farm workers

WASHINGTON — Farmers would have an easier and cheaper time securing foreign guest workers under pending Bush administration rules.

The controversial changes to the so-called H-2A guest-worker program could cut wages and speed worker recruitment. They also would relax requirements for providing foreign workers with housing and transportation.

"The Department of Labor is going to weaken oversight and enforcement," Bruce Goldstein, the executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, charged Wednesday.

A Labor Department spokesman said Wednesday night that the final rules would be made public Thursday and published in the Federal Register on Dec. 18, which means they'd take effect two days before Barack Obama is sworn in as president Jan. 20.

Currently, about 75,000 foreign guest workers obtain visas annually under the H-2A program. The program is an agricultural cousin to the H-1B visa program favored by the high-tech industry, designed to aid employers who are unable to find U.S. workers for specialized tasks.

Earlier this year, for instance, the big California lettuce-growing firm Tanimura & Antle brought in H-2A workers. Texas sweet potato farmers, East Coast apple growers and, particularly in the past, Florida sugarcane growers have employed the program. North Carolina leads all other states in the use of H-2A workers.

American farmers, though, consider the 50-year-old program slow and cumbersome, and it provides only a fraction of the U.S. farm work force. California, for example, uses only about 500 H-2A workers annually, while it has about 300,000 migrant farm workers.

"It needs to be reformed," Frank Gasperini, the executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said of the H-2A program. "It doesn't work as well as it should."

The Labor Department announced in February that it would revise the program. The department subsequently received some 11,000 public comments, many duplicative. On Monday night, the final revisions, totaling 166 pages plus explanatory material totaling 393 pages, were posted quietly on the Labor Department's Web site.

The Labor Department dropped some initial proposals that had drawn fire, including one that would allow employers to provide housing vouchers instead of housing. However, many other changes survived.

Currently, for instance, employers typically reimburse H-2A workers for transportation costs back to their homes in, say, the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The new rules limit reimbursement to travel to where the workers entered the United States or to the U.S. consulates where the workers received their visas; for instance, the Mexican city of Monterrey.

The new rules would ease administrative burdens by allowing employers simply to "attest" that they're meeting various program requirements. The Labor Department said this would trim unnecessary paperwork; critics fear it will invite abuse.

The new rules also would add logging to the type of work eligible for H-2A workers, though the Labor Department declined to add several other occupation fields, including dairy.

By Wednesday, the new rules had been pulled from the Labor Department's Web site. It couldn't be determined Wednesday why the material had disappeared.

Agricultural employer representatives stressed Wednesday that the H-2A streamlining and cost savings won't fill the labor shortfall that drives U.S. farmers to rely on illegal immigrants.

"This will make it a more functional, efficient program, but it's not going to solve all our problems," said Manuel Cunha, the president of the Nisei Farmers League, based in Fresno, Calif.

Cunha and Goldstein agreed that a long-term solution lies in a compromise bill dubbed AgJOBS, which would change the existing H-2A program and legalize more than 1 million illegal immigrant farm workers who already are in this country. Obama backed AgJOBS while he was in the Senate, but it faces very high hurdles in Congress and apparently bleak prospects for now.

"All the consequences are not yet clear," Goldstein said of the new rules, stressing their complexity.