‘Guest Workers’ Aren’t Needed
A “guest worker” agricultural program being considered in Congress would be good for growers but bad for workers--both those already laboring in the fields with scant benefits and protections and newcomers who would have even less under the program.
American treatment of immigrant farm workers has long been a national shame, and the program sponsored by Sen. Gordon Smith and Rep. Robert F. Smith, both Oregon Republicans, would make things worse, not better. Congress should toss it out.
The proposal is aimed at providing a steady supply of foreign field workers to U.S. farms and orchards. From 20,000 to 25,000 visas would be made available to foreign laborers to cover manpower shortages. But a recent General Accounting Office report says the need is a fiction, that “ample supplies of farm labor appear to be available in most areas [in the U.S.].”
“A widespread farm labor shortage is unlikely in the near future, although localized shortages are possible,” the GAO noted. A report issued by the California Employment Development Department in April says there are nearly 300,000 unemployed people in California’s major agricultural counties, which seems adequate to meet demand.
So why wouldn’t farmers look for American labor first? Easy answer--money. Few Americans would work the fields for the wages farmers want to pay.
The Oregon lawmakers claim the government’s current H-2A program, which permits about 18,000 guest worker visas, is burdensome and overregulated. It must be streamlined, the bill’s sponsors insist. That means weakening or eliminating its current minimal protections regarding housing and wages.
A more subtle tactic is hidden in the concept of a pilot program for guest workers. At present, 40% to 80% of all agricultural labor is performed by undocumented workers. By presenting their bill as a pilot program, the Oregon lawmakers imply it could be a test to see whether it’s possible to move from an illegal work force to one that is legal and whose participants will return to their homes once a crop is picked.
That is an illusion. Starting with the government’s so-called bracero program, which operated from 1942 to 1964, every government guest worker program has sparked more illegal immigration. We don’t see anything different in this one. Nor do we see any value in this legislation.