EDITOR’S NOTE: We have withheld or changed the last names of some people interviewed for this story in order to protect their privacy.
Federal plans to alleviate labor shortages by expanding the agricultural guest-worker program are shortsighted, according to area workers, advocates and farmers, who say the only real solution is immigration reform.
The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs, according to information from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (uscis.gov). To qualify, employers must offer jobs that are temporary or seasonal, demonstrate that there are not enough American workers to fill the positions, and show that hiring visa workers will not “adversely” affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed American workers.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor approved H-2A visas for 200,049 foreign guest workers on U.S. farms, marking a 20.7 percent increase from the 165,741 visas approved in 2016, according to information at dol.gov. But visa workers represented only 7 percent of agricultural workers, most who were undocumented workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute (epi.org).
To address farmers’ labor needs and increase the amount of farmworkers here legally, President Donald Trump announced plans during an April 28 rally in Michigan to rework the guest-worker program through a new visa program.
The proposed H-2C visa — which would replace the H-2A visa — is the focus of the Agricultural Guestworker Act, which was introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., as part of the Securing America’s Future Act (HR 4670) currently being considered by Congress. Mushroom and dairy farms — which had been excluded from participating in the H-2A program because of their year-round operations — would be allowed to use temporary workers from other countries under the new H-2C program, according a fact sheet issued by the House Judiciary Committee (see bit.ly/2KN8Z42).
The bill, currently being considered by the Judiciary Committee, also would require illegal immigrants working in the U.S. to return to their countries of origin and apply to re-enter the U.S. as H-2C workers, according to a statement from the American Farm Bureau Federation (bit.ly/2Ikf6Pe), which along with the New York Farm Bureau supports the legislation.
“It would help those who are already working here have a legal way to remain in this country to earn a living for themselves and family,” NYFB spokesman Steve Ammerman wrote in an e-mail to El Mensajero Católico. “It would also bring those who may not have legal documentation out of the shadows and improve their quality of life.”
Yet Carlos, a dairy worker from Guatemala working in Genesee County, said he feels a new system would still be inadequate in meeting the demands of the industry. A better plan would be to give undocumented workers who are already here the opportunity to obtain work visas — without having to risk going back to their home countries — so they would no longer have to fear for their livelihoods, he said.
“Nos sentimos dolidos, tristes, preocupados por lo que esta pasando,” dijó él. “El sistema de trabajo y gobierno saben que nosotros estamos aquí. Porque no platican o llegan a un acuerdo en vez de contratar otra gente, contratar a los que estamos aquí.”
“We feel hurt, sad, (and) worried about what is happening” in the national immigration debate, he said. “Government and labor (officials) know we are here. Why not talk with us to reach an agreement to contract with us instead of bringing more workers in?”
Apple farmer John Teeple agreed with Carlos. Although he is permitted to bring in a group of 30 to 50 H-2A workers each year, Teeple said he needs 65 to harvest the apple crop on his farm.
To fill the gaps in his workforce, Teeple said he ends up hiring workers who come in with papers that appear legal. But increasingly, police pick up those workers for traffic violations that lead them to U.S. Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Code Enforcement (ICE). One of his current workers probably will face deportation this summer, he said.
Apple farmers in New York collectively need about 8,000 people for work that takes about eight weeks a year, Teeple added.
“They have to be legal, they have to be healthy and it’s hard work,” he said of apple harvesting. “There just aren’t 8,000 (Americans) waiting for us to give them a job. … It’s why we need to have outside workers come in.”
Teeple said the process for bringing in H-2A workers is cumbersome and expensive — it costs up to $1,500 for paperwork, legal and transportation fees, he explained. Under the H-2C program, the farmer would not have to pay for housing or transportation for workers.
The H-2A program “is a blessing and a curse,” Teeple said. “It’s the only legal program we’ve got to bring in people to the country. … But we have to bend through so many hoops to make it happen.”
On paper, offering farmers another option appears to be a good idea, especially for the dairy industry, which employs a workforce that is 50 percent to 70 percent undocumented, noted Elizabeth Henderson, a retired organic produce farmer.
“If (ICE) kicked out all of the undocumented workers, dairy farms and larger-scale vegetable farms and vineyards in New York state would be in really sad shape for workers,” she said. “In order to have farmworkers who are citizens or local residents, the wage would have to be $20 to $30 an hour. None of the farms can afford that.”
Even when offering higher wages, farmers have found few local residents want to do the kind of repetitive, physically demanding farm work undocumented workers and guest workers are willing to do, she noted.
Instead of expanding guest-worker programs, Henderson said she supports an alternative proposal from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, of which she is a member. The coalition advocates for a dual-purpose visa system that would allow workers to come and go across the border, and provide a path to legal status for workers who are already in the country, she said.
Under the coalition’s plan, farmers also would be required to pay workers a living wage of at least $15 an hour, Henderson added. Farmworkers who are undocumented and guest workers generally earn the minimum wage or slightly more, but there is no oversight of labor conditions when it comes to undocumented workers, she added.
“The biggest farms, industrial farms, are modeled after slave plantations,” she remarked. “There are no slaves, but huge crews of undocumented workers.”
Even though farmers like Teeple adhere to strict regulations on housing and safe working conditions, other farmers are less scrupulous, according to Carly Fox from the Worker Justice Center and “John,” an H-2A worker.
In a phone interview with El Mensajero Católico, John said a lack of work in his home country has forced him to leave behind a wife and 9-year-old child each year since 2015 to work seasonally in this area.
John said he and the men he works with need beds and drinkable water where they are housed.
“Todo va bien ahorita pero no se si sigue adelante,” dijo de las condiciones en que se encuentran.
“Things are OK for now, but I don’t know going forward,” he said of his current situation.
John cut short the interview for fear that his supervisor, who is almost always with the men, would hear his comments and fire him.
His story highlights another problem with the guest-worker program: The burden of proving any maltreatment is on the worker, Fox said.
“Guest workers are excluded from citizenship benefits but are making contributions to the U.S. economy,” she said. “It’s a way of keeping folks of color in the shadows, since we don’t want to be integrating these people into this country.”