Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement Hearing on the H-2A Visa Program: Meeting the Growing Needs of American Agriculture


By:  Elton Gallegly
Date: April 13, 2011
Location: Washington, DC

Good morning to everyone. This morning we are going to talk about seasonal agricultural labor and as we all know, seasonal agricultural labor is in a class by itself. Unlike almost all other occupations, there are simply not enough Americans willing to take on the job of a migrant farm worker. In fact, our government's policy for generations has been to remove Americans from such labor.

The labor-intensive branch of agriculture -- fruits, vegetables and horticultural specialties -- hires over 1.2 million individual farmworkers every year. The U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Worker Survey annually surveys hired crop farm workers. It reveals that over the period between 2007 and 2009, 48% admitted to being illegal immigrants.

The actual figure may be even higher. In fact, quite frankly, I'm sure it is. NAWS shows that 85% of first-time hired farmworkers admit to being illegal immigrants.

What legal labor force option do growers have? Since 1986, the H-2A program has made available visas for temporary agricultural workers. However, 16 years ago, American agriculture representatives told this Subcommittee that the H-2A program was "characterized by extensive complex regulations that hamstring employers who try to use it and by costly litigation challenging its use when admissions of alien workers are sought." They alleged that the Department of Labor was "implacably opposed to the program."

Front and center in growers' minds was ensuring the availability of sufficient labor to meet the crucial needs like harvesting, whose timing varies with the weather. Unfortunately, timeliness has never been the H-2A's strong suit. Neither has realism about the availability of domestic labor.

We are here 16 years later and apparently little has changed. The president of the Virginia Agricultural Growers Association, an apple grower, has testified that "[w]ere it not for the H-2A guest worker program, broken, costly, and perilously litigation-prone as it is, we would be unable to farm at all. … One of the most frequently cited reasons our region's farmers go out of business is that they simply cannot continue under the burdens of the current H-2A Program."

The Bush Administration's Labor Department initiated a bold plan to revamp the H-2A program. The plan remade the program into an attestation-based system designed to "eliminate unnecessarily cumbersome regulatory practices" and speed guestworkers to growers in need. It was also designed to make the costs of the program more manageable for growers. Although it did not resolve all of agriculture's needs, the regulations received generally positive reviews from the grower community.

Unfortunately, one of the first actions of the Labor Department under the Obama Administration was to rescind those regulations.

We will receive testimony today from the Labor Department and also from one of the architects of the Bush Labor Department regulations. We will hear from growers who utilize the H-2A program and try to make the best of it. We will hear from an advocate for the farm workers who believes that the program harms both American workers and the guestworkers themselves. We can hope that this hearing will plant the seed for needed reform.

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