Despite its red tape and costly price tag, the H-2A visa program has become a popular labor source in Florida because it represents a place where specialty crop growers can find a legal and reliable workforce. In fact, Florida is now the No. 1 user of the program in the country.
Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has introduced the Agricultural Guestworker Act that would replace the H-2A program with an H-2C designation. While the legislation is said to address some of the challenges of H-2A, it has a number of flaws. One of the largest is it would cap the number of visas at 450,000. While that seems like a a lot, the program would be expanded to include dairy, meat, and seafood processors. Growers in Florida who have become reliant on the H-2A program would suddenly have a lot more competition for workers and could have difficultly sourcing labor if the law were enacted.
As of this posting, it appears the Agricultural Guestwork Act has a long row to hoe for passage. Among other things, it has wording that would grant amnesty to illegal farmworkers who would be able to obtain an H-2C visa and work toward a more legal status after four years working under the visa. Labeled amnesty or not, that can be a poison pill with many lawmakers. On the other side, opponents say the bill would encourage a permanent underclass of low-wage earners.
While the Agriculture Workforce Coalition supported moving the bill out of Committee, it suggests it needs improvements.
“During the committee process, several changes were made that would make this bill unworkable, particularly when coupled with expedited mandatory E-Verify. We must ensure practical and reasonable solutions are achieved for both the current and future workforce that American farmers depend on in order for our industry to remain competitive,” Tom Nassif, of Western Growers, said in a statement.
United Fresh Produce Association also said it opposes Congress enacting a strict E-Verify law without providing growers with a workable program that would allow them to source sufficient immigrant workers.
The Agriculture Workforce Coalition remains committed to working toward a solution that meets the needs of farmers. In a letter to President Trump, the group reminded:
“America’s farmers and ranchers are encouraged by your comments during your Feb. 28 address to a Joint Session of Congress, where you stated, ‘I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws.’ Mr. President, we stand ready to help you do just that.”
The letter went on to support strong border enforcement and even E-Verify provided growers can find adequate labor, not all of which would be American workers who have proven time and again to be unwilling to do the work. Enforcement-only would be costly as the letter noted:
“Based on a farm labor study conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation in 2014, an enforcement-only approach to immigration that causes agriculture to lose access to its workforce would result in agricultural output falling by $30 billion to $60 billion.”
So the dream of ag labor reform goes on. As lawmakers continue to debate and kick the can down the road, farmers must deal with the growing reality of a dwindling workforce and crops going unharvested because of it.