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World & Nation

Overhaul set for guest-worker plan

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration today plans to announce the most significant overhaul in two decades of the nation’s agricultural guest worker program, in a bid to dramatically increase the number of legal foreign laborers available to harvest crops.

The revised regulations, many months in the works, would make it easier for growers to bring foreign workers to the United States and could alleviate the critical farmworker shortage largely caused by the U.S. crackdown on illegal border crossings.

After Congress failed to overhaul immigration laws last summer, the White House announced a 26-step plan to tackle immigration issues through administrative fixes. Altering the legal-farmworker program would mark the most significant achievement to date.

“There is huge potential here to replace the massive illegal workforce with a legal one,” said Leon Sequeira, an assistant secretary at the Department of Labor.

The greatest effect would be in California, the nation’s largest agricultural state. Some farmers have had to plow rotting crops back into their fields for lack of workers at harvest time. But lawmakers and growers said Tuesday that more than an administrative fix was needed to solve the state’s chronic farm labor shortages.

The proposed changes to the program, which would relax the requirements for the H-2A visas granted to foreign farmworkers, come against a backdrop of growing anger over illegal immigration and tension among the presidential candidates over the issue.

The new regulations could be a boon to growers, who have long complained that the program is too cumbersome and leaves them little choice but to turn to illegal immigrants.

The simplified rules are certain to generate outrage among anti-immigration activists, who say the program steals jobs from Americans. At the same time, advocates for farmworkers charge that under the new rules, growers could exploit workers by paying them less than they do now.

The proposed changes, which would take effect after a 45-day period of public comment, would modify how foreign laborers are paid and housed, and slightly expand the types of industries that can use the program. The administration would also ease the standards farmers must now meet to show they have tried to hire U.S. citizens first.

“The overarching departmental goal is to encourage the use of the H-2A program to provide agricultural employers access to legal workers,” said the Labor Department’s Sequeira.

Sequeira noted that, of the nation’s 1.2 million farmworkers, more than half tell Labor Department surveyors that they are in the U.S. illegally. Many advocates believe the actual percentage of illegal workers is close to 70%.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was skeptical that the proposed changes would make much difference, noting that only about 2% of farm jobs are now filled through the notoriously bureaucratic program. “Growers frequently cannot get labor through the H-2A program when they need it. Simply tweaking regulations can’t fix that problem,” she said. “I’m afraid that these H-2A modifications make a bad situation worse -- by lowering wage rates and undermining existing labor protections for U.S. and foreign farmworkers.”

Feinstein pushed for Congress to pass a farm labor bill that was negotiated over years by worker advocates, industry groups and unions, but failed to move forward this year in the politically fraught uproar surrounding immigration. That bill, called AgJOBS, would create a new guest worker program that would allow laborers to eventually become citizens.

“The key to real reform is AgJOBS. Growers support it. Workers support it. And bipartisan majorities in Congress support it,” Feinstein said. “It would provide incentives for a stable, reliable agricultural workforce and provide long-term H-2A reform.”

‘A question of execution’

In addition to the Labor Department, the departments of State, Homeland Security and Agriculture have a role in the program. Labor and Homeland Security focused on making the program easier for growers to use, strengthening worker protections and improving enforcement, but critics questioned how these proposals would actually work.

“It’s going to be a question of execution,” said a Senate aide briefed on the changes. The aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record, expressed concern about some proposals, including a change to the way workers are paid.

One of the proposed changes would set wages based on a worker’s occupation and skill level. “Depending on how it’s done, it has the potential to lower farmworkers’ wages, potentially significantly,” said the aide.

Other changes would give workers more time to search for a new H-2A job after their existing one ends. Employers would have to certify under penalty of perjury that they wouldn’t change the terms of work after they hired the temporary workers.

Tracking program

Homeland Security would create a pilot program to track whether H-2A workers leave the country when their visas expire.

Employers that violate the program’s regulations would face substantially higher fines and penalties. Growers would also be forbidden from passing along to workers any costs incurred from participating in the program.

Farmworker advocates called those provisions promising, but harshly criticized administration proposals to ease regulations concerning U.S. workers, including one that requires growers to go through several steps to show they have tried to hire an American before they can bring in H-2A workers.

“These employers routinely violate the law already and we need more law enforcement under the H-2A program, not less,” said Bruce Goldstein, of Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group affiliated with the National Council of La Raza. “They’re just looking for some formula to lower wage rates of both U.S. workers and foreign workers.

“There is no economic or moral justification for these harsh changes.”

But growers singled out the same proposal for praise and cautiously commended the overhaul.

“Government is infamous for having different agencies not work together well, not understanding each other’s roles and not particularly caring,” said Michael Gempler, current president of the National Council of Agriculture Employers.

“As a result the consumer suffers, so this is a very valuable thing to do.”

nicole.gaouette@latimes.com


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