Farm Labor Fix Remains Elusive

As Congress Hears About Ag Labor Issues, USDA Offers Tools to Navigate H-2A Program

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Farm workers in California walk fields. More than half of the U.S. ag workforce is undocumented, but Congress has struggled for years trying to pass legislation to deal with undocumented workers and overhaul the H-2A guest-worker program. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo by Jim Patrico)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The challenges of farm labor, guest workers and legalizing much of the farm workforce haven't gotten any better in the past year, as Congress once again will search for a solution that has remained elusive.

Congress has repeatedly attempted over the past two decades to reform the ag guest-worker program, H-2A, and consider legalization options for at least part of the current group of illegal farm laborers. Each Congress, though, a bill advances only to be derailed.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, held a hearing on agricultural labor Wednesday, highlighting a bill she introduced earlier this year that would provide legal status to farm workers and permanent residence to long-term ag workers in the country. Lofgren noted the volume of similar hearings over the past two decades and the inability to reach a bipartisan solution.

"We've always agreed a solution is necessary, but agreement on that basic principle is not enough," she said.

Rep. Ken Buck. R-Colo., said the U.S. needs to move toward a better-functioning guest-worker program for agriculture. Buck said a major cheese processor in his district has the potential to increase production, but can't get more dairy production because dairy farmers struggle to find adequate labor.

"This is the same story I hear as I visit farm after farm in my district," Buck said. "Labor is the lifeblood of the agriculture industry."

Buck said the current H-2A is a "program designed to fail," adding H-2A has extensive paperwork and regulatory requirements, and farmers who use the program have to pay more than farmers who use undocumented workers for the same labor.

"What growers need is a fair and functional guest-worker program, one that gives them access to the workers they need when they need them, at a fair wage with reasonable mandates," Buck said.

The hearing did not include any members of the Trump administration to offer views on how it could reshape the H-2A program or farm labor. The White House remains locked in conflict over the southern U.S. border with Mexico and people arriving at the border from Central American countries seeking asylum. President Donald Trump continues to threaten to shut down the border and trade over the problem.

"Congress must get together and immediately eliminate the loopholes at the Border! If no action, Border, or large sections of Border, will close. This is a National Emergency!" the president tweeted Wednesday morning.

Still, USDA on Wednesday added some new features to its website, help farmers with the application process for H-2A visas, as well as manage their farm loans.

USDA states the details on the H-2A program on the website are focused on education and helping smaller farmers. The website includes an "interactive checklist tool" providing application requirements, fees, forms and a timeline highlighting hiring needs. USDA said it would work with the Department of Labor on a "phase II" of its website, which would create a more streamlined application form with details on regulations and the application process.

Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers, noted the H-2A has tripled from 80,000 positions in 2008 to more than 240,000 positions in 2018. Still, at least half of agricultural workers are undocumented, he said. Rodriguez said farmworkers often are put to work in untenable conditions because of a lack of enforcement on labor conditions. Unlike those representing farms, Rodriguez said the most important needs for farmers were higher wages and better work conditions.

"Yet, overwhelmingly, when farmworkers are asked what they enjoy most about their work, you will hear over and over again a pride in feeding the rest of the country and parts of the world," Rodriguez said, adding that undocumented farmworkers have earned the right to apply for legal status in the country.

Rodriguez added there are racial elements to laws regarding fair labor and the environment that continue to exclude agricultural workers. He pointed to the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which is banned by other countries, but still allowed for U.S. agriculture even though it has been found to damage nervous systems and brains.

Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, pointed out farmers in his organization produce about half the fruits and vegetables and three-quarters of the nuts produced and sold in the U.S. He highlighted that guest workers are not taking jobs from other people in the country, adding a lot of people simply don't want to do farm work. Nassif also cited how frequently Congress has come to nearly passing immigration reform for agriculture.

"We have been unsuccessful because we have been divided in our goals and in our needs," he said.

Nassif added the economic future of agriculture requires providing legal status for existing workers and their families. Such a program should be done "without the need for a touchback" in farmworkers' home country.

"They have shown an allegiance to the industry, they have worked hard and they have paid their taxes," Nassif said, adding these workers need to protect their families. "For us, this is an economic issue and a humanitarian issue."

A new guest-worker program should have less bureaucracy and avoid pricing farmers out of business, Nassif said. Such a program also should not require a cap on the number of positions they fill. Nassif also agreed that the federal E-Verify program should apply to agriculture as well.

To correct mistakes of the past, Nassif said, an immigration bill needs to be bipartisan and have enough support for the president to sign it.

Nassif also pointed out the need for a labor program that helps the dairy industry because the current H-2A program only allows farmers to bring in guest workers for seasonal jobs.

Farmworkers, legal or otherwise, are also aging. Nassif and Rodriguez also both noted that farmworkers continue to get older and their children are not going into farm work as their parents once did.

A young woman from Idaho whose parents worked extensively on a dairy farm and in seasonal farm work also testified, as did a Georgia farmer whose operation relies heavily on H-2A workers.

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Chris Clayton