Last week, in a move that caught many in Congress flatfooted, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) used an amendment to attach a controversial agricultural guest worker program to the $33.2-billion bill funding the Commerce, Justice and State departments. The bill is one that has to pass to fund government operations; as a result, the guest worker program expansion, which probably would not have passed on its own, passed easily, 68 to 31. The maneuver was clever, but whether it was honorable is another question.
The guest worker proposal would let farmers import thousands more seasonal immigrant field workers to California and other agricultural states. Most would come from Mexico.
There is already a guest worker program for seasonal harvests, from strawberries to apples, but it requires employers to provide housing and guarantee each worker a minimum amount of work. Farmers say the current law is too onerous and that there are not enough field workers available. However, the California Employment Development Department says there are nearly 300,000 people unemployed in the state’s major agricultural counties.
Other critics point out that the new measure would do away with even minimum protections for these most vulnerable of workers, some of whom surely would stay in the United States--illegally--once their contracts were finished.
Now the House is considering the appropriations bill, which is certain to pass and be sent to a conference committee. At that point, however, the guest worker amendment should be detached and thrown back to Congress to allow full and vigorous debate and a vote on the merits of the proposal. Some House Republicans oppose the measure, as do most Democrats. It should not sneak through Congress on the back of unrelated legislation that President Clinton would find difficult to veto.
As we have said in past editorials, there is not sufficient need for additional agricultural guest workers. That was the conclusion of a recent General Accounting Office report, and that is one reason California’s two senators, as well as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, firmly oppose the measure.
Labor costs represent a small fraction of the total food expense of consumers. The pennies on the dollar saved by bringing in cheaper workers aren’t worth the harm they undoubtedly would cause.