That was the message of farm leaders who spoke at a House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and border security Feb. 26.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. Washington, D.C., said in his prepared testimony that a reformed guest worker program is needed because of the failings of the H-2A program.
The Feb. 26 hearing, titled “Agricultural Labor: From H-2A to a Workable Agricultural Guestworker Program,” featured Stallman, Chalmers Carr, president of Titan Farms, Ridge Spring, S.C., Michael Brown, president of the National Chicken Council and Giev Kashkooli, political/legislative director of the United Farm Workers.
Carr of Titan Farms in South Carolina said U.S. growers are at risk from a thin and aging domestic labor force, increased immigration enforcement and the costly and complex H2-A program.
Stallman said many growers have concluded that the H-2A program, even with reforms, will never work, “nor will the Department of Labor allow it to work.”
Expanded use of E-Verify by state governments and the potential of mandatory E-Verify in federal immigration reform legislation is another reason reform is necessary, he said.
“The reason for farmers’ concern is not that they wish to employ unauthorized workers: it is that they know that once E-Verify is required, their ability to retain some of their existing workers, replace workers who leave and to retain those new workers will be severely jeopardized without a workable guest worker program,” Stallman said in his testimony.
Stallman, on behalf of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, proposed a new guest worker program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that would give employers the stability of a contract or the flexibility of portability depending on their business needs.
In addition, he said the program would not be restricted by seasonality requirements, but would be available to employers demonstrating a year-round need to hire workers under contract. Those workers would have the ability to remain in the country for up to three years, he said, with a commitment to their home country of 30 days during that period. To reflect agriculture’s short-term labor requirements , the plan would give portable visa workers authorization for 11 months, he said.
He also said that current illegal immigrants in agriculture must be provided work authorization in any immigration reform package. Without that provision, 60% to 70% of current workers in agriculture may be displaced without any short-term solution for employers.
In support of Stallman’s testimony, members of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition sent a letter Tuesday to House and Senate leadership calling for support of the group’s proposal for immigration guestworker legislation.
Speaking for United Farm Workers, Kashkooli told the committee that the UFW supports legalization of current illegal immigrant workers. However, the UFW still supports the H-2A program and the protections it gives guest workers, he said.