Industry pushes for reform to allow foreign laborers to work on dairies
By DAN WHEAT
Comprehensive immigration reform seems dead until after the 2012 election, but some H-2A guestworker reform could happen as part of E-Verify legislation this year.
Reform could address the H-2A program, which is seen as overly bureaucratic, time consuming and expensive, said Leon Sequeira, a labor attorney in Washington, D.C. He was an assistant secretary of labor in the Bush administration and wrote that administration's reforms of the program.
There are a number of moderate Democratic senators who represent agricultural states and have a political interest in joining Republicans to make H-2A work better, Sequeira said.
Beside speeding up the application process for guestworkers, the program could be changed to include entire sectors that have been excluded, the most prominent being dairy, he said.
"I spoke to a dairy group in Wisconsin last November and there were probably 1,000 dairy farmers in the room, and the vast majority were eager to participate in the program," Sequeira said. Dairy has been excluded because it requires year-round rather than seasonal workers, he said.
Sequeira outlined problems of the H-2A program in testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement on April 13.
"Rather than helping facilitate timely access to seasonal labor, the Department (of Labor) instead regularly subjects farmers to a bureaucratic and regulatory morass that has left the program in near total disarray," Sequeira told the subcommittee.
Fewer than 56,000 H-2A visas were issued by the State Department in 2010, which was a small fraction of the number of illegal workers performing agricultural labor in the U.S., he said.
Mandatory E-Verify, an Internet system for employers to verify the employment eligibility of job applicants, may pass this fall but is seen as a "huge problem" for agriculture because of the large number of ag workers who are probably undocumented, Sequeira said. Republicans and moderate Democrats are likely to tie H-2A reform to E-Verify, he said.
The AgJOBS bill, a short-term option dealing with labor shortages, has no chance of passage because it's viewed as amnesty, granting lawful status to illegal immigrants and placing them on a path to citizenship, Sequeira said.
While agreeing with Sequeira that comprehensive immigration reform is dead before the 2012 election, Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, said someday there will be an immigration bill with status adjustment and mandatory E-Verify. Many current ag workers will move into other work and there will be new pressure to find agricultural workers, Fazio said.
With increasing apple, cherry and wine grape acreage in Washington there will be more demand for workers and fewer of them, he said.
"The noose is tightening. If we want to produce fruits and vegetables, we have to address the problem," he said.
The solution has to be, he said, a guestworker program that allows immigration back and forth from Mexico on a regular basis but for limited duration.