Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2012 10:00 AM
By MICHAELENE ROWE
For the Capital Press
A recent national survey conducted by the Tarrance Group has brought attention to the H-2A agricultural guestworker program. The survey revealed that of a representative sample of likely voters, 70 percent expressed approval for political candidates who would stand in favor of an expanded agricultural guestworker program that includes existing undocumented farmworkers.
Even more significant is that while support is strong across the board, the study noted that support was also strong among Republicans (74 percent), and other very conservative voters, including even single-issue immigration voters (63 percent).
It appears that most voters -- even those adamantly opposed to broader immigration proposals -- understand just how vital these guestworkers are to U.S. agriculture. They understand that the vast majority of unemployed domestic workers simply will not take and keep these labor-intensive jobs. Furthermore, they recognize the important role agriculture plays in helping to grow the U.S. economy.
Snake River Farmers Association has been implementing the H-2A guestworker program for growers in the Northwest for 25 years. We can attest that the current program -- without considerable changes -- would be far too burdensome and inadequate to serve the long-term needs of American agriculture. We know first-hand that today's H-2A program is riddled with bureaucratic red tape and prone to political swings, which translates into uncertainty for farmers who use it. The application process is overly complex and can result in workers arriving in the country late. Any grower can tell you that late workers are the same as no workers when time-sensitive work must be done related to the growing or harvesting of crops.
Members of our association are farmers who, in many ways, are required to meet higher standards as well as undergo an elevated degree of scrutiny for the privilege of employing a legal workforce. No wonder the vast percentage of ag employers across the country continues to avoid the program bureaucracy and struggle instead with the problems associated with hiring undocumented workers.
In the March 25 Wall Street Journal, Tom Nassif makes an interesting comparison when he contrasts agricultural H-2A guestworkers to the nearly one-third of all major league baseball players in 2011 who were foreign-born. Those who come to the U.S. to play baseball during the season, along with other professional and amateur athletes, were given their own special guestworker visa program by the Bush administration in 2006, which allows them to move freely throughout the U.S. and across its borders.
Nassif points out that while talented baseball players are indispensable to baseball, farmworkers are just as indispensable to the security of our domestic supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. Nassif mentions what an absurd picture it would be if the 16 foreign players on the Yankees were stuck in their home countries on opening day due to visa delays.
Meanwhile, Georgia's new state immigration legislation (with no such special consideration as that given to the sports industry) left millions of dollars of labor-intensive crops rotting in the field. Strong enforcement measures forced the undocumented workforce out of the state and all creative attempts at luring U.S. workers were a miserable failure. In Georgia, only 3.4 percent of growers reported using the highly burdensome H-2A program.
Georgia's example shows that any meaningful national immigration reform must examine the unique situation of U.S. agriculture when developing a legal system that would operate with enough efficiency that it could be used in high numbers. The Tarrance Group's recent survey affirms that even those who support more stringent immigration enforcement would vote in favor of a candidate who is willing to pave the way for allowing the presence of legal foreign farmworkers.
The answers aren't easy, but we applaud Nassif and agree that if lawmakers can speedily pave the way for foreign workers to come swing a bat, they certainly ought to be able to fix a tattered program for foreign workers who have a history of performing work that ultimately puts food on our tables.
Americans "get" it. The agricultural industry and their employees certainly "get" it. Now lawmakers need to pick up the ball and run with it.
Michaelene Rowe is executive director of the Snake River Farmers Association, which helps hundreds of agricultural producers file H-2A applications.
The association has been in existence since 1985 with the sole objective of implementing the current regulations and laws that allow members to employ temporary foreign workers for their farming operations.