WASHINGTON May 16 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