WASHINGTON, March 5 (UPI) -- In the cacophony of debate about immigration, farmers across the nation often shun a completely legal guest-worker visa program. Charging that it's bureaucratic and insensitive to the industry's needs, farmers and their advocates for years have been demanding reform.
Growers say the H-2A program, the current visa system for guest workers on a seasonal basis, is unnecessarily complex. The visa allows farmworkers to stay up to a year in the U.S., renewable up to three years. During the application process, farmers have to prove they cannot find American workers to fill the position and hiring a foreign worker would not hurt Americans in similar work.
Congress has not yet answered calls for simplification -- and under the current system, farmers are worried they cannot find a steady labor supply.
"The system is burdensome, very costly and very complex," said Tom Nassif, the CEO of Western Growers, a trade association.
Employers have to pay fees and file applications with multiple state agencies and departments for months in advance of hiring and endure long waiting times for approval, sometimes barely in time for harvest season, Nassif said.
"There have been times when we need farmworkers immediately on the ground," said Billy Carter, who uses H-2A at his Eagle Springs, North Carolina farm to produce sweet crops, tobacco and strawberries.
At the peak of hiring in 2013, farmers used H-2A for only about 10 percent of hires, according to a World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services report published last year.
H-2A visa enrollment stood at 65,000 in 2012, an increase from just 31,000 in 2002, while the number of undocumented workers last year was estimated at 525,000 or more, the report also said.
"Farmers who are eligible to use it often see it as a last resort," said Craig Regelbrugge, an Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform co-chairman.
Undocumented immigrants make up between 50 to 70 percent of farmworkers in the U.S., according to the agriculture labor rights group Farmworker Justice.
Shifting national agendas
Even if they want to be legal, farmers who need year-round labor are excluded from the seasonal visa program. Labor crunches in the dairy industry, for instance, are common because American workers sometimes shun the back-breaking work, said Chris Galen, a spokesperson for the National Milk Producers Federation.
"The only ones who want to continue doing the job are people who come to this country from somewhere else," he said.
Industry advocates and experts have been frustrated with the pace of guest-worker visa reform for the past 15 years. Agriculture's interests have been repeatedly set back by politicking on Capitol Hill, said Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacifica University.
When George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency at the turn of the millennia, hopes were high that the former governor of Texas would reform the program, he said.
"Here was a president who understood agriculture and the president of Mexico happened to be the former governor of the state right across the border," he observed. "Boy, it was all set up for him."
Then the September 11 attacks shifted the national agenda. Immigration became equated with a potential national security threat in the minds of the general populace, Moore said.
Any opportunity for reform was lost when Bush proposed comprehensive immigration reform in 2004.
"Part of the Republican base became very noisy in opposition and the issue was shunted again," Regelbrugge, the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform co-chairman said." We largely shifted from an economic to cultural debate about immigration."
Congressional limbo -- and how it's hurting American food production
The issue remained stuck in Congress year after year -- until 2013, when the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that would have replaced the H-2A with a new W visa category for lower-skilled workers.
The proposed system would have lasted three years, helping those farmers who need year-round labor, and allowing some workers to employers within the industry in a bid to reduce labor abuse. However, House Speaker John Boehner never put the bill up for a vote due to unhappiness from the Republican conservative base.
Industry advocates are worried that without immigration reform, the production of labor-intensive crops like hand-tended fruit and vegetables, as well as animal agriculture, could be affected.
"We need a sensible labor policy to keep expanding production of these high-value crops that bring in the most money to rural communities," Regelbrugge said.
Foreign-grown produce consumed here has increased by nearly 80 percent since the late 1990s, said a report (http://www.renewoureconomy.org/research/no-longer-home-grown/) by the Partnership for a New American Economy and Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.
Regelbrugge finds it hard to be optimistic that lawmakers will pay attention to agriculture's needs any time soon. Congress has been focused on an "enforcement-only package" of bills, such as a proposed federal mandate for checking employee immigration status using the E-Verify government database.
The recent move by a Texas court blocking the president's executive action to shield more undocumented immigrants and workers from deportation also signals an anti-immigrant sentiment. But Western Growers' Nassif said it should not distract from the need to pass legislation boosting the industry. "Texas is not the impediment to agriculture's interest, the complete lack of immigration reform is the impediment," he said.
Moore says the agriculture industry's problems are more fundamental. "Agriculture for the past 25 to 30 years has decided its future is with the Republican Party, which supports agriculture but opposes immigration reform."
"A Republican candidate in the primaries who advances a pro-immigration stance is unlikely to win the nomination," he said. "The earliest we'll see any change is 2017 and that also depends who will be president too."