Visas that don’t work

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The anticipation is almost unbearable. For some, it seems as if Dec. 25 will never come. Others can hardly wait for Sunday and the start of eight days of miraculous light and celebration. And for those whose gifts arrive with camels and kings, the lapse between now and Jan. 6 feels like an eternity. To the season of yearning we now add Jan. 20. That’s when President Bush will finally set down his pen.

Not content to leave office as the most unpopular president in recent history, Bush is cementing his legacy of hardheaded autocracy by pushing through a record number of last-minute and particularly noxious changes in federal regulations. Bypassing congressional debate and often receiving public comments through government websites, the administration has in recent months issued dozens of “midnight regulations” that in some cases could take years to reverse. This isn’t just leaving a stamp on the country, it’s more like inking a tattoo.

Although other presidents have crafted rules the next administration might not, none has been so aggressive or destructive as Bush. His administration has attacked environmental safeguards, reproductive rights and public safety. It has acted to permit uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, curtail women’s access to birth control, allow visitors to carry loaded guns in national parks -- which are among the safest public places in the country -- and open millions of acres of unspoiled land to mining.


Last week, the Department of Labor weakened the nation’s already flawed agricultural guest worker program. The new H-2A visa rules, which take effect in January, revise the way wages are calculated and will lower them substantially. In California, farmworker advocates say, the current $9.72 hourly wage would drop by 18%. The new rules also reduce requirements for growers to prove they have made a good-faith effort to recruit U.S. workers and limit how much they have to reimburse workers for their trips home. This is precisely what opponents of immigration reform feared: policies that disadvantage citizens and encourage the easy exploitation of migrants

Furthermore, the changes won’t even narrow the labor gap. In California, only about 1% of the state’s 450,000 farmworkers are recruited through the H-2A visa program, and growers say the rule changes won’t help them; they’ll continue to push for the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, a bipartisan effort that would free migrant workers to move among employers and eventually allow them to gain legal status and become U.S. citizens.

Once Barack Obama is sworn in, he’ll have the power to clean up these regulatory disasters. That alone makes Jan. 20 feel like Christmas, Hanukkah and Three Kings Day rolled into one.