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Time is ripe for farmworker visa program

A sensible visa plan for temporary farmworkers would meet the agricultural sector's needs during harvest season without taking away jobs from Americans.

June 22, 2012|By Tom Nassif
  • Farmworkers harvest melons near the city of Arvin in Kern County. The Western Growers Assn. wants Congress to create a new agricultural worker program.
Farmworkers harvest melons near the city of Arvin in Kern County. The Western… (Los Angeles Times )

Every harvest season, U.S. produce growers have a narrow window in which the success of an entire year's work is dependent on human labor. With some crops, this window is only a few days. But finding a secure, reliable workforce to bring in the harvest can be extremely difficult. Over the last decade, American farmers have floated many ideas for remedying this situation, but they haven't been able to stir up the political will to change a broken immigration system.

Both political parties share in the failure to act. In 2009 and 2010, Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, yet there was no action on immigration reform. Republicans, who claim to be solidly behind American farmers, have also dropped the ball on immigration, using the issue only to scare voters and win elections. Members of both parties clearly understand that farmworkers do not take jobs away from American workers, and yet they resist introducing reforms.

One exception to the impasse came in 2006. That year, both Democrats and Republicans agreed that the need was so great for a particular class of worker that they cooperated in finding a way to allow noncitizens across our borders. The legislation, passed by Congress and signed into law by PresidentGeorge W. Bush, created a new guest-worker visa program for foreign-born athletes entering the U.S. to begin careers in professional hockey, basketball and baseball.

It's ironic that the very politicians who warn that foreigners should not take jobs away from Americans seem happy to cheer for young men who come from Venezuela and Voskresensk to play on U.S. sports teams. Support for the program has almost certainly taken jobs from Americans hungry to perform the work. Surely there are Americans who could play infield for the Los Angeles Dodgers or play forward for the Los Angeles Kings. Yet this year, the Kings won the Stanley Cup with seven foreign-born players on its roster. If Congress can find the will to change the law for one group of workers, why not for agriculture, where the need is far more desperate?

The Western Growers Assn., representing the producers of 50% of all American produce, set out this year to educate Congress about the desperate need for a new agricultural worker program. The current H2-A visa program for seasonal agricultural workers is complicated and unresponsive to the realities of farming, such as unpredictable weather conditions. Farmers who've tried to use the program say workers often arrive days or even weeks after they are needed.

A national poll commissioned by our organization found that only 25% of respondents believed that immigrants who do farm work are a cause of unemployment. Moreover, 70% of likely American voters — including 74% of Republicans and 71% who identified themselves at strong"tea party"supporters — would support a sensible new visa program aimed at agricultural workers.

The sensible visa plan we described in the poll would require farmers to first offer jobs to U.S. citizens. If they are unable to fill needed positions that way, farmers could then apply to bring in workers. Under the program, visa recipients would be required to enter only at designated border crossings. They would be required to pay taxes to help pay the cost of uninsured medical care. Social Security would also be withheld from their paychecks and refunded only after workers returned home. Existing farmworkers could participate but would not receive any kind of amnesty. Workers would be required to return to their home country for 30 days each year and would be allowed to work in the United States for only two to three years.

Our team shared the survey results with Congress, the Obama administration and the media, but they fell on deaf ears. Now with a national election just months away, we are told the chance of any legislation making its way through Congress is slim. For growers, that means yet another harvest season with labor shortages that will put perishable commodities at risk.

Farmers don't want to break the law by hiring workers who've crossed the border illegally. And those workers, about 1 million of them, would almost certainly prefer to be working legally. If that's not a possibility, however, the impoverished men and women who come to the United States from Jalisco, Michoacan or Guatemala will continue to take risks to come here for the chance to earn higher wages and provide for their families. And farmers will continue to hire them in order to ensure that their crops get to market and because they cannot legally question the documents workers present if they appear valid on their face.

Voters understand that creating legal channels for farmworkers to temporarily work in the United States would allow for better control of the border and focus resources on those who pose actual threats to national security. It would improve the lives of both farm owners and farmworkers. Most American voters aren't caught up in the harsh political rhetoric of immigration. Elected officials in both parties need only the good sense to listen and the will to act.

Tom Nassif is president and CEO of Western Growers.

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