Farmers: Let Our Workers Stay

migrant workers picking green peppers
It's no secret the agriculture industry is utterly dependent on illegal foreign workers, but for years lawmakers have been unable to agree on a way to curb the flow of illegals without harming the farmers who need them.

Now a compromise plan has emerged in Congress that would allow as many as 1 million illegal farm employees to stay in the country permanently and add perhaps 1 million more foreigners temporarily through an expanded visa program.

"The current system is broken and this compromise takes the first steps to fix it," said Anthony Bedell, a lobbyist for the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

It's unclear whether a lame-duck Congress that returns next week will want to tackle such a difficult issue, though those who worked on the plan are hopeful.

"We remain cautiously optimistic," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. and one of the lead negotiators. A spokesman for another lead negotiator, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said, "The senator is confident this will happen this session."

Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration panel, is fiercely critical of efforts to let illegal immigrants stay in the country.

"Providing green cards to people who are already here amounts to an amnesty and the chairman absolutely opposes amnesty," said John Lampmann, Smith's chief of staff.

AP Photo
GOP Congressman Lamar
Smith, chairman of a
Judiciary subcommittee on
immigration, is fiercely
critical of efforts to
allow illegal immigrants
to stay in this country.

Smith supports expanding the visa program, but the Clinton administration has threatened to veto a bill that did only that. Advocates hope a compromise involving both visas and green cards will win White House approval.

Earlier this year, Congress nearly doubled the number of visas for foreign high-tech workers — to 195,000 per year — after high-tech companies complained about acute labor shortages. Critics say it is unfair for Congress to help those companies while ignoring the plight of farmers.

More than half the country's 2 million farm workers acknowledged in 1998 that they were here illegally, according to a Congressional Research Service survey released in March, leading industry experts to conclude the actual figure is much higher.

Farmers say they walk a line between bankruptcy and committing a crime because of their reliance on illegal labor, said Kerry Whitson, a plum farmer and president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. Wages in the depressed farm economy fail to attract domestic workers, he said.

"You try to determine who is legal and who is not," he said. "It becomes so fraught with fraudulent documentation, that becomes a nightmare in itself"

The H-2A visa program allows foreigners to work on farms up to 10 months a year at a federally calculated wage rate in housing that farmers must provide.

Critics say the program allows unscrupulous employers to abuse workers by threatening to have them deported if they demand better wages or conditions. Marcos Camacho, general counsel for United Farm Workers of America, has compared the program to "indentured servitude."

Farmers also complain about the program. The cumbersome application process takes months, which farmers say is too long for them to wait when they need laborers quickly to respond to sudden weather changes that alter planting and harvesting schedules.

"When you get into seasons where Mother Nature steps in and you get 105-degree temperatures prematurely, you might have three days to respond," Whitson said.

Despite complaints, the number of workers covered by the visas has been growing in recent years — from 15,000 visas in 1996 to nearly 42,000 in 1999, according to the Labor Department.

The compromise plan would shorten the visa application process from months to days. Now, Department of Labor inspectors investigate farmers to ensure they will pay adequate wages and provide housing before issuing visas. The bill would let farmers obtain visas simply by promising to adhere to federal laws. Those who do not would be fined.

"It's essentially a `trust-me' program for employers," said Phil Martin, an agricultural economist at University of California, Davis.

The proposal also would:

  • Freeze the wages visa holders earn for three years. Farmers complain the average wages now required are too high because the formula used to calculate them includes non-agriculture jobs.
  • Allow farmers to offer workers housing vouchers rather than provide housing. The vouchers would be worth one-fourth of a federal housing subsidy, with the expectation workers will share apartments.
  • Allow illegal workers who can show they worked at least 100 days in agriculture in the last 18 months to begin the process of applying for a green card. They would be issued a green card if they work at least 360 days in agriculture in the next six years, with 275 days required in the first three years.

By Bart Jansen
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