Momentum for Immigration Reform Grows: House Hearing Explores Current and Future Immigration Solutions for Farmworkers
Yesterday, the House immigration subcommittee held a hearing, “Agricultural Labor: From H-2A to a Workable Agricultural Guestworker Program,” amid the increasing momentum for immigration reform. While the hearing revealed broad areas of agreement in ongoing negotiations between farmworkers and growers, the discussion exposed several critical issues that would require resolution for a compromise on immigration policy for agricultural workers. The witnesses on the hearing panel were Giev Kashkooli, Third Vice President of the United Farm Workers of America, and three employer representatives, including Bob Stallman, President of the American Farm Bureau Federation and Chalmers Carr, a South Carolina grower who uses the H-2A program.
The growers’ testimony and Representatives’ comments included complaints about the H-2A program, but most of the hearing focused on the potential for an agreement between agribusiness representatives and the UFW. Several participants agreed on the need for a roadmap to citizenship for current undocumented farmworkers, but two agribusiness representatives and several Republican members of the subcommittee spoke vaguely about a legal status or did not commit to a clear roadmap to citizenship.
There seemed to be an emerging potential agreement that workers needed from abroad for agricultural labor in the future should be granted “portable” visas, so that workers have the freedom to work for any employer in agriculture and are not tied to one employer. The discussion suggested that such a “free market” program could operate simultaneously with the H-2A program or a revised contract labor program. Disagreements arose over whether the agribusiness proposals would grant true portability or whether farmworkers would effectively be tied by contract to individual farms, as they are under the H-2A program, and therefore unable to bargain for better job terms. The UFW pointed out that the longstanding H-2A protections in the law and regulations are needed when such restrictions prevent labor mobility and suppress employer competition.
The UFW’s Giev Kashkooli highlighted principles for a future free market program, stating that it should include true portability, a meaningful limit on the number of visas based on market needs, strong and equal labor rights, and a roadmap to citizenship. The UFW noted the importance of protecting the jobs and labor standards of the hundreds of thousands of current citizens and lawful immigrants in agriculture, as well as those who would gain immigration status in a legalization program. The UFW seeks to ensure that immigration reform will improve the wages and working conditions of all farmworkers.
The UFW pointed to the necessity of a market-based cap on the number of visas to prevent employers from bringing in an oversupply of guestworkers willing to accept poor wages and conditions. A limit on the number of visas should be accompanied by a wage trigger (ie. a wage decrease would indicate a labor surplus) to ensure that US workers and newly legalized farmworkers aren’t displaced and don’t suffer wage depression or lowered working conditions. Rep. Pierluisi of Puerto Rico noted while the H-2A program doesn’t have a cap, it does include requirements to recruit U.S. workers and other requirements that serve as economic disincentives to over-recruiting foreign workers. For example, the ¾ minimum work guarantee, the payment of transportation costs and the provision of safe housing to migrant workers help to ensure that employers only seek the number of workers they actually need. The American Farm Bureau stated its opposition to a cap. The UFW also stressed the need for an opportunity for citizenship for seasonal workers that repeatedly return to the US to work in agriculture to avoid creating underclass of workers.
Some notable questions from the subcommittee members included Rep. Gutierrez’s question of AFBF president Bob Stallman whether he thought it was right for a grower to be able to fire a farmworker for joining or organizing a union. He used the example of a worker organizing in Carr’s orchards in South Carolina. After several attempted dodges, Stallman finally said that he does not support an expansion of collective bargaining in agriculture and that because South Carolina is a right to work state, it would be fine. The UFW’s testimony highlighted the exclusion of farmworkers from major labor protections that other workers enjoy, such as the right to join a labor union free from retaliation, overtime pay, and many federal occupational safety and health standards. Also, in response to Rep. King’s assertion that immigration enforcement had decreased during the Obama administration, Rep. Garcia polled each witness on whether they believe enforcement had increased, and he confirmed that they all did.
The award for most shameful question goes to Rep. King, who was so horrified at the notion that farmworkers might have some mobility and be free, that he posed requiring a bond of farmworkers to ensure that they would return home. Rep. Goodlatte stated that no special path to citizenship should be offered to the current workforce, noting instead that they could become citizens through the existing system—for example, by marrying a citizen or getting an education. His viewpoint failed to acknowledge that the current system is broken, which is why we have 11 million aspiring Americans who are NOT able to access a roadmap to citizenship. Goodlatte also repeated his recent statement that farmwork is so undesirable that measures should be taken to ensure that workers aren’t able to work outside of agriculture, and explored the possibility of expanding a future agricultural program to meat processing. The UFW soundly rejected the idea and the AFBF declined to give an opinion, deferring to that industry, with poultry processing industry’s representative Michael Brown vaguely suggesting they could agree on an opportunity for immigration status.
The hearing confirmed that immigration reform is needed and that agricultural workers and their employers are among the most important participants in the immigration policy debate.