The warts of the H-2A guest worker program for agriculture were on display at an April 13 hearing of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration policy and enforcement.

“Currently H-2A is too litigious, too expensive and too much of a bureaucratic morass at the three federal agencies that oversee the program,” Lee Wicker, deputy director of the Vass-based North Carolina Growers Association told the subcommittee in prepared remarks.

He urged the committee to reform the H-2A wage rate to 110% of the minimum wage, mandate binding mediation and arbitration between workers and employers, permit visa cost and transportation reimbursement after workers complete 50% of their contract and streamline the H-2A application process for employers.

Whether Congress will do anything to improve the program for agricultural employers remains an open question, industry sources said afterward.

Reps. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif, expressed the need to try to fix the H-2A program to save agriculture, said Diane Kurrle, director of public affairs for the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va.

“They both acknowledged several times that they saw agriculture heading for a potential train wreck if E-Verify is made mandatory and the H-2A program continues to be clearly dysfunctional,” she said April 13.

Kurrle said Republicans seem to prefer fixing the H-2A program at the Department of Labor to make it more responsive to the needs of the market, while Democrats tend to focus on legalizing falsely documented workers already working in agriculture.

The hearing, titled "The H-2A Visa Program: Meeting the Growing Needs of American Agriculture?" also heard from Jane Oates, assistant secretary for employment and training for the Department of Labor and Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice.

Kurrle said the House Judiciary Committee appears to be moving toward endorsing mandatory E-Verify for all employers, though there is a realization by at least some on the committee that agriculture will be hurt by such a requirement.

“Hopefully we will have a more balanced approach to it, but there wasn’t anything from the hearing that (would indicate) that is in the works,” she said. “There weren’t a lot of bipartisan promises to do something going forward.”