H-2A PROGRAM -- (Senate - September 29, 2006)
Mr. CHAMBLISS. Mr. President, I take a few minutes to respond to some of the comments made this afternoon by my colleagues from Idaho, from California, and Massachusetts. First of all, they are correct in stating the H-2A program, which is the existing temporary nonimmigrant worker program for agriculture, does not work the way it should.
However, what Senator Craig, Senator Feinstein, Senator Boxer, and Senator Kennedy propose to do, rather than make many of the necessary changes to make the H-2A program viable nationwide is, first of all, to grant an amnesty to virtually everyone who has passed through agricultural occupations in the past 2 years.
We all know that agriculture has been the traditional gateway occupation for illegal immigrants in the United States. I strongly disagree to large-scale adjustment of status for illegal aliens philosophically, particularly in the area of agriculture, but my objection has practical roots.
Agricultural work is the hardest, most backbreaking work in the United States today. As soon as we give illegal aliens who are currently working in agriculture lawful, permanent resident status, as the AgJOBS bill will do, they will no longer choose to work in the fields, packing sheds, groves, or processing facilities.
I come from the heart of agriculture country in the southeastern part of the United States. I have talked to farmers in my area not just for the 12 years I have been privileged to serve in Congress but even before that. Labor has been the most critical issue they have had to deal with year in and year out in addition to disasters, to too much rain, to not enough rain, to high gas prices.
The immigration issue has the potential to be the answer if we do the right thing. We know these folks will leave agriculture and move into the private sector because this is what happened in 1986 after Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Included in that legislation was the special agricultural worker program that gave temporary legal status to illegal aliens who had worked a certain number of years in agriculture. Two years after obtaining a temporary status--and in some cases 1 year--those illegal workers were given permanent status. They soon left the fields and moved into the private sector in so many other areas where we find them today.
My position as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee has provided me the opportunity to travel across the United States and talk with farmers and ranchers. Recently, I have concluded eight field hearings from one end of the country to the other, from the east coast to the west coast. In every single hearing we held with farmers and ranchers across America I had any number of farmers who came up to me during the process of those hearings to talk about immigration. It is an issue on the west coast. It is an issue on the east coast and all parts in between. And to a farmer, the one thing I heard from him was: Senator, whatever you do, don't let the AgJOBS provision that grants amnesty to folks who come to this country to work in agriculture get passed because if you let that provision in, I assure you, the pool of agricultural workers that we need will not be there after they gain that permanent status in the United States.
Why should we expect this adjustment status to be any different than what we saw in 1986? It won't. I don't think it will be, and the folks who are involved in agriculture don't think it will be. All that would be left to our farmers and ranchers will be the H-2A program, and the revisions that Senators CRAIG, FEINSTEIN, BOXER, and KENNEDY make to the H-2A program are actually detrimental to the future success of that program.
I have talked to farmers, as late as the day before yesterday. I had a group of farmers from all over the country who were in my office, and every single one of them uses the H-2A program. What they tell me is the program, as they have used it, is cumbersome. It is expensive. But it works. And in the areas of the country where farmers have used the H-2A program, the labor shortage issues are not as acute as in those areas apparently such as in California and Idaho, where they use illegals crossing the border, and where now the border is being tightened up and they are feeling a pinch because they do not use legal workers.
In my part of the country, I went to our farmers who complained about not having a quality pool of workers from which to choose. And when they used illegal workers, and they had the INS come in and check on them, the illegals scattered from one end to the other, all of a sudden, and they were left naked and unable to harvest their crops. I said: What you have to do is get in compliance with the law. You have to use H-2A, irrespective of how inconvenient it is, irrespective of how bureaucratic it is, and irrespective of how expensive it is, if you want to be legal and if you want to have that quality pool of workers from which to choose.
By and large, farmers in my part of the world are now using H-2A, and they are finding that exactly what we thought would happen is happening. They do not have to look over their shoulder every year to see if ICE--now it is ICE--is coming in to check their workers. They know they are here legally. They know they are going to have to pay them a good wage. They know they are going to have to provide them with housing--all the things that H-2A provides. And they are willing to do that because they do have a quality pool from which to choose.
Now, finally, I point out that even though H-2A is not perfect--it is cumbersome, it is costly, it subjects employees who use it to lawsuits--in those areas where H-2A is used, they are not experiencing the shortage that others have found. So I think, rather than grant a large adjustment of status to illegal workers, we ought to sit down at the table and talk about ways we can make the H-2A program more workable for our farmers.
I am happy to sit down with my friends from California and Idaho and see if we cannot work through this. But let me say there are some fundamental problems with AgJOBS in addition to the adjustment of status provision, which does grant a pathway to becoming legal, a pathway to citizenship for those people who work in agriculture in this country under that program for a period of 2 years. We have to work through that. I do not think that is in the benefit of the American people, whether it is the American farmer or whether it is those people who are here legally trying to become citizens in the right way.
Secondly, there is an issue relative to the wage rate. Now we have the adverse effect wage rate under the H-2A program, which is not fair. It is not equitable to farmers in North Dakota versus farmers in Georgia, versus farmers in California and Idaho. In the recent immigration reform package we had on the floor, we sought to amend that bill to include what is known as a prevailing wage, ``prevailing wage'' being a wage that is determined by the Department of Labor to be applicable to agricultural workers in certain regions within a State, rather than in regions of the country. It is fair. It is equitable. We need to have that prevailing wage provision put into whatever amendment we make to the H-2A program.
Also, the AgJOBS bill does not eliminate what we call the 50-percent rule. Every farmer who uses H-2A knows and understands exactly what I am talking about and knows what a hindrance this is to them because, under AgJOBS, they would be forced to hire what is called a blue card worker who is treated like a U.S. worker for hiring purposes. If he shows up at the farm before 50 percent of the work is complete, then even though the farmer has an H-2A worker here, he has to send that individual back to wherever he came from and hire that domestic person or that blue card person under the AgJOBS program.
It gets complicated, but those folks who have been involved in this know exactly what I am talking about. What we should make sure of is that at the end of the day we have a program that is fair to farmers, that is fair to Americans--whether they are folks who are here looking for work in agriculture or whether they are folks who are trying to become citizens of this country in a lawful way, in the way that is set forth in our Constitution--that we should make sure we provide our farmers with a quality pool of workers from which to choose, and that we make sure our farmers are required to pay those individuals a fair wage and are required to either provide them housing or provide them a housing allowance, so while they are here working on their farms we do not have to worry about where they are out in the communities, and that they are able to take care of themselves while they are here.
All of these issues are critically important parts of any immigration reform package we take up. So I simply urge again my friends who want to give these folks who come to work in agriculture a pathway to citizenship that we sit down at the table and work out these differences. Let's amend H-2A and accomplish the goal we all have in common.
Mr. President, I yield back.