Passed alone, the verification program could result in major labor losses
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- While mandatory E-Verify is popular, it can be stopped in Congress if not accompanied by guestworker reform, a former Bush administration official says.
There are enough congressional conservatives who recognize agriculture needs guestworkers and liberals who oppose E-Verify for other reasons, Leon Sequeira, a former assistant secretary of labor under Bush, said Aug. 16 at a Washington Farm Labor Association conference in Wenatchee.
House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, introduced a bill, HR2164, in June mandating electronic verification of legal status for employment through Social Security numbers.
The bill may be voted on in September. Alone, it could result in many illegal aliens from Mexico failing to get jobs in tree fruit and some vegetable harvests and leaving those crops short of workers.
There are more than 1 million hired farmworkers in the U.S. and more than 50 percent have admitted to the Department of Labor that they are here illegally, Sequeira said. The true number is probably in excess of 75 percent, he said.
Smith is sympathetic to that problem and soon will introduce the American Specialty Agriculture Act, Sequeira said. It would replace the expensive and burdensome H-2A guestworker visa program with a new H-2C visa for all of agriculture, including dairies, which were excluded in H-2A.
The H-2C would be administered by the USDA instead of the Department of Labor because Labor is making H-2A difficult to use, Sequeira said. H-2C would allow 500,000 visas per year and ease wage, housing and transportation requirements. An H-2A rule requiring growers provide employment to U.S. workers who apply until 50 percent of H-2A workers' contract period has elapsed would be eliminated. Workers would not be allowed to bring their families with them to the U.S.
Smith does not want to amend the H-2C onto his E-Verify bill for political and parliamentarian reasons, but the two bills need to pass simultaneously, Sequeira said.
H-2C would allow workers into the U.S. for 10 months and then require them to go back to Mexico for two months before being allowed back into the U.S. for another 10 months.
Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, said he would like to see H-2C visas granted for 12 months and be renewable. He said it needs to be workable for small growers through sharing of workers or allowing cooperatives or packers to provide them.
While Smith's plan does not address amnesty for illegals already in the U.S., Fazio said agriculture appears split on that issue and needs to take a position.
However, Jon Wyss, government affairs director of Gebbers Farms, Brewster, said a new guestworker program and legalization can be handled separately.
Gebbers Farms is the largest employer of H-2A guest workers in the country, Wyss said. "It's not something you want to put on a banner. It just makes us a target (of the government)," he said.
The company grows tree fruit, timber and cattle and laid off hundreds of employees more than two years ago after a federal I-9 citizenship form audit. Within three months, the company went from zero to 1,200 H-2A workers, 300 from Jamaica and the rest from Mexico, Wyss said.
"The best part was we had Bush administration rules. If we'd had to deal with current (Obama) rules we would have been a miserable failure," he said.
The H-2A program is expensive and demeaning because it requires employers to care for workers as if they were children, he said.