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White House Would Make More Visas Available

Friday, February 15, 2008

  • Javier Erik Olvera
  • Mercury News

A broad range of activists - from opponents of illegal immigration to farmworker rights advocates - are questioning a new Bush administration proposal aimed at making it easier for farmers to legally recruit laborers from other countries.

And even the farmers themselves have problems with the proposal.

A global campaign is under way to stop the proposal, the latest attempt to crack down on illegal immigration in the wake of Congress' failure last summer to approve an immigration bill.

Opponents fear some farmers - attracted to the potential cost savings outlined in the proposal - may abuse the system as well as mistreat foreign workers, who they say would be at the farmers' mercy or risk deportation.

"We are doing the best we can to sound the alarms that this is a really bad proposal that needs to be stopped," said Erik Nicholson, director of guest worker programs for the United Farm Workers union.

Under the proposal, the departments of Homeland Security and Labor would ease complicated requirements that make employers prove they've exhausted their efforts to hire Americans before they could turn to the nation's 20-year-old H-2A visa program.

The visa program was designed to alleviate a shortage of authorized farmworkers during harvest season, something federal leaders say is clearly the case considering up to 800,000 of the nation's 1.8 million farmworkers are believed to be in the country illegally.

The proposal could have a significant effect on California's $32 billion agriculture industry, which employs more than 450,000 laborers - with as many as 70 percent believed to be working illegally.
For years, though, the stringent requirements for the H-2A program have resulted in little use of the program, with only 75,000 visas - roughly 4 percent of the total farm laborer workforce - issued nationwide last year.

The hope, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said last week when they announced the proposal, is that farmers will use the visa program instead of employing illegal immigrants, many of whom use bogus identification documents.

"There simply are not enough U.S. workers to fill the hundreds of thousands of agricultural jobs that are available in this country," Chao said.

To qualify for the visas, any immigrants already in the United States illegally must first return to their home countries to complete applications at American consulates.

The prospect of farmers assembling a new workforce scares Eleuterio Salvador, 27, who immigrated into the country illegally from Mexico and now works in fields throughout the Salinas Valley.

He believes thousands of people - both illegal immigrants and those authorized to work in the country - could be hurt by the program.

"It's nothing more than another way to keep workers down and to control them," said Salvador, who is married with two young children.

The proposal is now undergoing a 45-day public review during which federal officials will take comments into consideration before they determine whether the changes should go into effect before the summer harvest.

The changes would reduce the red tape farmers now face, including eliminating a requirement that farmers first go to state labor offices repeatedly to prove that they're trying to recruit legal workers.

Laborers who are granted visas in their home countries can legally come into the United States to work for less than a year.

Chertoff and Chao said a system would be created to make sure the program isn't violated, including monitoring H-2A employers and meting out steeper fines if the rules are broken.

But one of the biggest problems opponents have with the proposal is a new wage formula for H-2A visa holders that opponents say doesn't require farmers to pay minimum wage and instead uses a new, potentially lower rate that would be set regionally.

Bruce Goldstein of Farmworker Justice in Washington, D.C., said he fears the program could result in an overall decrease of wages for all farmworkers.

And Jack King, who oversees national affairs for the California Farm Bureau, said farmers also are wary.

King wonders whether the changes in the visa program also will account for pre-harvest needs, which, depending on the crop, include brief hiring spikes for the pruning and thinning of trees.

He also would like farmers to be able to share visa-holders, so workers could jump from employer to employer - and harvest to harvest - throughout a season.

Instead of tweaking the visa program, King said, Congress should reconsider the agricultural guest-worker legislation that was a part of the failed immigration package. That legislation would have created a pathway toward citizenship for farmworkers already in the country.

But while Bob Dane of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which calls for tighter border enforcement and tougher immigration laws, suggested the proposal was a step in the right direction. He cautioned that progress in the fight against illegal immigration shouldn't come at the cost of displacing American workers.

"We're going to keep an eye on this," Dane said.