The concept of AgJOBS has been around for more than a decade. Brandon Mallory, executive director for Mid American Ag and Horticultural Services, has been directly involved in the struggle for immigration reform just as long. “I would say we understood how big the problem was maybe 15 years ago, and we started moving towards a solution,” he says. That solution was AgJOBS, which Mallory believes has its positives and negatives. “There have obviously been some changes to it since, and it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d probably say the best thing about it is that it allows the workers that are currently in the country working on farms, through a process, to stay here legally and continue to work in agriculture.”
The benefit of this is that the employees already are trained and proven agriculture workers that have the desire to work on farms. “So that’s the good about it,” Mallory says. “You wouldn’t have to start over.”
The Future Of H-2A
While on the surface AgJOBS appears to offer great benefits to growers, Mallory points out that it doesn’t permanently tie those workers to agriculture. One of the provisions of AgJOBS says that these laborers would be required to work in agriculture only for a period of a few years, after which time they would be free to work in whatever field they choose. “So it’s not a real permanent solution to the problem,” Mallory says. “Since it doesn’t permanently tie our current workforce to agriculture, in a few years, to some extent, I believe we could be back to where we are if it were not for the H-2A provision of AgJOBS.”
That’s where the H-2A guestworker program comes into play. “So if some years down the road, if the workers get older or transition to other fields of work, what we have left is the guestworker program that would allow us to bring in workers under a special visa to fill those jobs,” Mallory explains.
But, dealing with the regulatory enforcement issues of H-2A can be a headache for growers. The regulations recently have been rewritten under the Obama administration, meaning agriculture is now on its fourth set of rules over the last couple of years. The new regulations became law on March 15, and according to Mallory, they’re going to make using the program more costly and complicated for producers.
But, out of 105 pages of language in the current AgJOBS legislation, 75 of them are dedicated to H-2A revision, Mallory says. Essentially, this will eliminate the future possibility of a new administration changing the rules yet again. “What AgJOBS will do is it will change the program in such a way that it will go back to the way it was to some extent, but will add a lot of new things that are going to be of benefit to employers and producers,” Mallory says. “It would be much easier to use the H-2A program, and we’ll not be subject to the whims of a change in administration.”
Adhering To Regulations
So, what’s the best way for growers to make sure they’re understanding and adhering to the regulations correctly? Mallory recommends seeking council from an H-2A agent that can help with the process. He says he works exclusively with MASLabor (www.maslabor.com). “They understand as well as anybody how to administer the program,” he says.
As for the future of AgJOBS and how growers can make the most of it, Mallory says right now, the best thing growers can do is make sure they’re educated and keeping their eyes and ears open relative to immigration reform. And, when the opportunity presents itself, support AgJOBS. “It speaks to the needs of the workers as well as to the needs of the farms, and although not perfect, it’s a huge step in the right direction,” Mallory says. “Obama says immigration reform is a priority for him, so our hope in the agricultural community is that any look at comprehensive legislation will include the AgJOBS legislation in its entirety. In other words, they would roll that whole AgJOBS piece right into comprehensive reform.”
Mallory adds that he’s not sure what the odds are that the current Administration will tackle immigration reform this year, but he remains hopeful. “I would say that we still have our fingers crossed regarding some type of immigration reform bill this year,” he says. “But this is a very fluid topic.”