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A man works in the fields of Whatcom County on Feb. 26, 2013. Photo: Mike Kane for Equal Voice News
Farmworker and civil rights groups specifically point to documented cases of abuse, safety problems and wage theft in the guest worker program and agriculture industry.
This year, the Southern Poverty Law Center updated its 2007 report, “Close to Slavery,” which is a critical look at the country’s H-2 guest worker program. The report found that guest workers from other countries end up being sources of inexpensive labor. In many cases, critics say, they become expendable.
“Congress should look before it leaps,” the report reads. “It harms the interests of U.S. workers … by undercutting wages and working conditions for those who labor at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.”
One conclusion of the report: The current guest worker program should neither be duplicated nor expanded.
The categories of international guest workers and farm workers already in the United States can mix easily.
Farmers in the country need more than 1 million agriculture workers each year, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Boswell said, but they have “low access” to a stable domestic workforce. “We have come to rely on an immigrant labor force,” she said.
In fiscal 2012, the federal government issued 65,345 H-2A visas for workers, the U.S. State Department reported. Nearly 96 percent of those visas were handed out in North America. Ten years ago, in fiscal 2002, 31,538 H-2A visas were granted. In fiscal 1997, the number of H-2A visas issued was 16,011.
The United Farm Workers Union has told Congress that there are more than 1 million undocumented people in the country’s agriculture industry. Some lawmakers estimate that noncitizens perform from 50 percent to 80 percent of the work in U.S. agriculture.
Seasonal agriculture work is hard and labor intensive and can take place in remote areas.
Boswell expressed the farmers’ federation’s concern that undocumented farmworkers already in the country would leave the industry, should they gain legal status in a comprehensive immigration law. She noted that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 gave legal status to undocumented immigrants, and that, by the 1990s, farmers had difficulty finding field workers.
Although some parts of the country, such as California and the Southwest, might have enough people for seasonal work, other areas, such as upstate New York, might not, Boswell said. A guest worker program, she said, makes sense.
Last month, the Washington Farm Labor Association confirmed it had started recruiting 3,000 guest workers from Mexico. The association, which serves as a human resources agency for Pacific Northwest farmers, said growers brought in 4,000 guest workers to Washington state in 2012, according to the Yakima Herald.
Efforts to reach Dan Fazio, the labor association director, for comment were unsuccessful.
But Bellingham farmworker advocate Rosalinda Guillen asked: “Why are the farmers recruiting in Mexico? What is going to happen to the legalized work force or those who are going to be legalized? It’s like intellectual capital that you’re losing.”
And in an opinion piece for New America Media, Rick Mines and Ed Kissam contend that, after the 1986 immigration law offered legal status to undocumented immigrants, farmworkers who left the industry did so because of low wages and the seasonal nature of agriculture work — which made it difficult to support a family.
Cindy Hahamovitch, whose book, “No Man’s Land,” examines guest workers and deportable labor, pointed to a potential conflict between legalization for undocumented immigrants, including a path to citizenship, and a new guest worker program.
“You’d hate to deny legal status to 11 million people because of this issue,” she said. “During the debate that led up to the 1986 immigration reform, there was a compromise between those who advocated legalization and those who wanted a bigger, less-regulated guest worker program. Legalization occurred, but the guest worker program grew dramatically.”
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