A top farmworker union official and the president of the largest agriculture trade association agreed on broad issues as they testified Tuesday about steps that Congress should take to address a guest-worker program they each consider flawed and failing.
But Giev Kashkooli, third vice president of the United Farm Workers of America, and Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, parted ways as they got into the finer details on which any agreement on immigrant farm labor will turn.
It is a critical issue in an industry in which 50 percent to 70 percent of hired workers are undocumented or, as the industry calls them, falsely documented workers. About 1 million of the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the United States work in some form of agriculture. About 50,000 to 90,000 workers per year enter the United States legally through the Labor Department’s H-2A federal guest-worker program on visas that are good for 10 months. The sheep industry has an exception that allows its foreign workers to stay for up to 33 months.
Stallman told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security that a group of employers, the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, wants the H-2A program scrapped and a new market-driven program created under the control of the Agriculture Department. Employers with long-term needs such as dairy producers could hire workers under contract for up to three years. In segments of agriculture with more seasonal needs, employers could bring in workers on 11-month visas under which the workers could work for multiple employers.
"What President Stallman describes sounds right, but the problem is the written proposal does not do that. What we would be in favor of are two programs, one driven by the market and, second, a contract program that is either H-2A or modeled after H-2A with the protections originated by President Reagan," Kashkooli said.
Kashkooli said the market-driven approach "makes a lot of sense" but should have safeguards against an unlimited supply of foreign workers that employers use to keep area wages artificially low.
Stallman said market need would determine the overall number of visas and workers. He argued against any national cap or limit on workers, saying labor needs in the various sectors of agriculture fluctuate suddenly and significantly.
Lawmakers also must address the estimated 1 million farm workers who are in the United States illegally — a generally experienced and valued pool of workers. During the transition from H-2A to the new program, Stallman said, they should be given work authorization in agriculture for five years. After that period, workers could apply for permanent legal status or continue to work in the farm industry under an agriculture card.
Kashkooli said the union believes that temporary workers who return repeatedly to the United States should have the right to eventually apply for legal status or citizenship.
Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., agreed with Stallman "that it is well past the time to replace the outdated" H-2A program. However, he said, his committee must find a balance that provides agriculture with the workers employers say they need and must not repeat past policy mistakes that created a large illegal immigrant workforce in the United States.
Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council, said visa holders under the program envisioned by a coalition of poultry, egg and meat processors could apply for permanency if they are in good standing with employers and their communities. The Food Manufacturers Coalition wants a visa program that would supply lower-skilled foreign workers for no less than three years, Brown said.
Although dairy, fruit and vegetable growers are generally considered the most dependent on legal and undocumented immigrant workers, Brown said food manufacturers also face challenges in hiring foreign workers.
"The existing temporary programs for general-labor skilled workers are for seasonal labor only, which does not help manufacturers whose occupational needs are year-round and ongoing," he testified.
Brown said his industry hopes lawmakers do not forget those needs as they work to write immigration policy for agriculture and the broader economy.
"Employers should have the ability to recruit outside of the U.S. and sponsor workers for a defined period of time," he said.