U.S. grower group asks for no limit on foreign field workers

WASHINGTON Thu May 16, 2013 6:44pm EDT

WASHINGTON May 16 (Reuters) - Immigration reform legislation should allow unlimited hiring of foreigners to work on U.S. farms to avert damaging labor shortages at harvest, a group representing large farmers told a U.S. House of Representatives panel on Thursday.

Growers say the current H-2A guest worker program is cumbersome and often does not allow them to bring in enough foreign workers when local recruiting falls short.

Up to 500,000 agricultural workers a year could enter the United States under a bill sponsored by Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration law. A Senate bill would allow 122,000 guest workers a year. There are some 70,000 or so H-2A visas in use now.

"Farmers need the program to be uncapped," said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, the largest H-2A user group in the country.

Its members expect to employ 7,500 guest workers during the growing season as well as thousands of Americans.

At a Judiciary subcommittee hearing, Wicker said farmers can face bankruptcy if they cannot get enough workers into the field when crops are ready to pick. Also, consumers pay higher produce prices if crops rot in the field.

Goodlatte's bill would create a H-2C visa, good for up to three years and renewable for 18 months at a time, for farm, seafood and food processing employees. It would be the first time processors could hire guest workers for year-round jobs.

A coalition of growers and the United Farm Workers union backs the Senate approach, which includes a path to citizenship for farm workers in the country illegally as well as a new guest worker program. It allows visas to run for up to three years at a time but does not include packing-plant workers.

The North Carolina group supports Goodlatte's bill. Asked about the Senate bill, Wicker said, "I think it's fine. I don't think it will pass in the House."

Chris Gaddis, chief personnel officer at JBS USA, one of the biggest U.S. meat packers, said it takes four to eight months to train workers at processing plants. "To get a return on our investment, we would need them to stay," Gaddis said.

Goodlatte's H-2C visas would be more attractive, he said, if the long-term workers were not required to leave the country for three to six months before a new visa would take effect and if the workers could bring family members with them.

Meat processors have moved increasingly into rural areas in the past couple of decades and say it is difficult to fill job openings.