As we approach the midterm elections, pieces of information are surfacing in the press about President Obama’s plans for executive action. According to recent news, President Obama has not yet made a decision on what form administrative immigration relief will take. According to Buzzfeed, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security are expected to pass along their recommendations to the White House in the next two weeks for the President’s review and decision-making. The administrative relief is expected to include some kind of deferred action or parole program that would provide protection from deportation and work authorization for a defined group of undocumented immigrants.
Many immigration advocates are disappointed by rumors that the recommendations may provide for potential administrative relief to only a limited number of individuals. The recommendations will likely include factors such as length of residence in the United States and family relationships with others in the country. For example, if the President only offers relief for undocumented immigrants who have been in the US for 10 years and have US citizen children, an estimated 3 million individuals would be eligible, as opposed to other proposals that could cover up to 5 million individuals. The Senate immigration bill, on the other hand, would have offered permanent relief for up to 8 million individuals, including separate farmworker and DREAMer provisions. Many advocates have been urging the President to be bold in his actions, pointing out that he will face Republican criticism for any administrative relief action, no matter the size. Advocates are concerned that the President may choose a smaller option. DREAMer groups are particularly disappointment that the parents of DACA-recipients could be excluded from relief.
A program that only covers individuals who have been in the U.S. for 10 years and have U.S. citizen children would be very challenging for farmworkers and others in the informal economy. Many farmworkers would have difficulty proving residency in the United States for 10 years if they are paid in cash and don’t have bank accounts; live in employer-provided housing or shared housing; or otherwise lack documentation such as utility bills in their own name. Farmworker Justice and allies continue to raise issues such as these with the Administration to ensure that any administrative relief program is as inclusive as possible and takes into consideration the unique challenges faced by farmworkers.
Farmworker Justice believes President Obama must act boldly to provide broad affirmative administrative relief to address the millions of undocumented people who contribute to our economy and society but suffer due to our broken immigration system. The Administration must take action because the House of Representatives has refused to address the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform. Any action President Obama takes must be inclusive of farmworkers, the majority of whom are undocumented. Broad, bold administrative relief would help farmworkers, their families and their communities, and would help stabilize the farm labor force and ensure a prosperous agricultural sector.
Members of Congress continue to express their support for the President taking executive action on immigration. Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) co-authored an op-ed in Univision.com Thursday, expressing confidence that President Obama will announce an affirmative relief program and outlining his legal authority to do so. The Members of Congress mention that among Obama’s options for affirmative relief, he could “recognize that it is ‘essential for agriculture’ that farmworkers who toil in our fields do so without fear.”
Regarding timing for the President’s announcement, the only timeframe given so far has been the President’s assertion that he would take action by the end of the year. Some are predicting that the announcement may not come until December due to a possible run-off election for the Louisiana Senate seat and the interest in completing the appropriations process prior to the announcement. The current continuing resolution will expire on December 11 and if the President makes his announcement before the government is funded, the House may attempt to limit the President’s action through the appropriations bill as it tried to in the summer when it voted to defund DACA. Some individuals have also expressed concern that if there is a runoff election in the Georgia Senate race which would take place January 6th, the President may delay his announcement yet again. The runoff could create pressure for the President to delay by Democrats who believe that the executive action would motivate Republicans to turn out for the runoff, hurting the Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn’s chances of winning. If the Democrats need Nunn to win to maintain control of the Senate, the pressure on the President will be more intense. However, the President and his staff have repeatedly promised that he will announce executive action by the end of the year and another delay would produce much anger from immigrant communities and reflect poorly on the President’s willingness to keep his promises.
H-2A Program Increases Show the Program Working Well for Employers
Data on the H-2A program for Fiscal Year 2014 released last week by the Department of Labor show that the H-2A program is far from “broken,” as growers continue to claim. From FY 2013 to FY 2014, the number of H-2A worker positions certified increased by 18%. The number of applications from FY2013 to FY2014 also increased by 13%.1 North Carolina remains the number one user of the H-2A program, bringing in up to14,502 H-2A workers in FY2014, a 17% increase from last year. Several states had significantly large increases in the number of H-2A workers certified, including a 45% increase in Washington, 44% in California and 35% in Florida.
The increase in H-2A program usage has not been limited to this past year. The program has more than doubled in size in recent years: from about 48,000 worker positions certified in FY 2005 to about 117,000 worker positions certified in FY 2014—an increase of 141%.
Complaints by growers that the H-2A program is “broken” are thinly-veiled attempts to get a new guestworker program with lower wages and fewer worker protections. But the H-2A program wages and worker protections are greatly needed. Despite the current H-2A program’s modest protections aimed at reducing exploitation of guestworkers and protecting the jobs, wages and other labor standards of U.S. farmworkers; the program is rife with abuse. H-2A workers typically arrive indebted and fearful, are tied to their employer for the length of their visa, and must leave the country when the job ends, factors which make workers extremely dependent on their employers and vulnerable to abuse. No matter how many years H-2A workers spend in the U.S., they never earn the opportunity to become an immigrant or citizen.
With comprehensive immigration reform unlikely next year, some growers may push for a new agricultural guestworker program with reduced government oversight, low worker wages and reduced protections; with no legalization program for current experienced undocumented farmworkers. Farmworker Justice will continue to educate policymakers and the public about such harmful proposals.
Happy Halloween and don’t forget to vote next week!
1 Note that the number of workers certified is not an accurate reflection of the number of H-2A workers who entered the US in FY 2014 as growers may not bring in the total number of workers listed on their certification.