NEW ORLEANS — The showdown over immigration and border security may have an upside if U.S. lawmakers reconsider improving the agricultural guestworker system, according to an attorney tracking the issue.
However, attorney Leon Sequeira told growers attending the American Farm Bureau Federation’s convention in New Orleans on Jan. 13 this outcome didn’t have a high probability of materializing in the coming year.
At the conclusion of his presentation, Sequeira compared such a development to other unlikely occurrences as he showed a slide depicting a sasquatch, a leprechaun, and several extraterrestrials.
Since 2005, the federal government’s H-2A agricultural guestworker program has grown by roughly 400 percent, to more than 240,000 annual positions, and is on track to hit 300,000 positions, he said.
The expansion is partly propelled by the participation of large farms in Washington, each of which can employ hundreds or even more than a thousand H-2A workers, Sequeira said.
What’s worrisome to farmers is the rising minimum wage paid to these workers, known as the adverse effect wage rate, which has climbed from a national average of $8.61 per hour in 2015 to $12.96 in 2019, he said.
With Democrats winning a majority in the House and the retirement of a longtime champion of agricultural guestworker reform — Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. — it’s unlikely Congress will soon undertake such controversial legislation, Sequeira said.
The Democrat-controlled House is more likely to now focus on providing a path to citizenship for workers who are in the U.S. illegally, he said.
Disputes over the status of farm workers already living in the U.S. illegally helped sink several attempts at agricultural guestworker reform since 2017, he said.
It became apparent there was strong Republican support for a bill to make the guest farm worker program more flexible, such as one proposed by Goodlatte that would have allowed up to 450,000 such positions annually and permitted year-round operations, such as dairies, to participate, Sequeira said.
“We were within striking distance,” he said.
The attempts ultimately weren’t successful partly because employers on the West Coast, some of whom heavily rely on undocumented farm workers, were unhappy with provisions impeding a path to legal status for such immigrants, Sequeira said.
While the American Farm Bureau Federation tries to take incremental steps toward improving access to legal guestworkers, the situation becomes complicated if the changes favor some growers over others, said Paul Schlegel, the organization’s managing director for public policy.
“You get into a political tug-of-war,” he said.
For now, the existing H-2A program will largely remain the only viable legal option for many labor-dependent farmers, said Bob Boehm, general manager of Great Lakes Agricultural Labor Services, which assists growers with the program.
Foreign workers consider obtaining an H-2A visa “like winning the lottery” due to higher wages and free housing, while farmers appreciate the predictability of the program, he said. For example, H-2A workers can be depended upon to stay through the end of the growing season instead of moving elsewhere.
“It’s often those tail ends where your profit is,” Boehm said.