EVANSVILLE, Ind., July 19 (UPI) -- American farmers might be able to import labor from other countries more efficiently under a new proposal to change the U.S. Department of Labor's controversial migrant farmworker program.
The Labor Department announced it will make the changes via a proposed new rule that would amend the nation's current H2-A migrant visa program. The agency will begin accepting public comment on the proposal after it is published in the Federal Register, though it is unclear when that will happen.
"The proposed rule will increase access to a reliable legal agricultural workforce, easing unnecessary burdens on farmers, increase enforcement against fraud and abuse, all while maintaining protections for America's workers," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement.
"When this rule goes into effect, our farmers will be released from unnecessary and burdensome regulations allowing them to do what they do best," Perdue said.
The H2-A program is the only avenue for farmers to legally hire migrant workers. To use it, farmers must apply for visas from the labor department, proving that they cannot find American workers to fill the positions. Once visas are granted, the farmers hire companies in Mexico, or whatever country from which the workers are coming, to recruit the laborers.
Support for changes
Farmers, who have long complained about the program's long waits and excessive paperwork, have come out in strong support of the changes. They are quick to add, though, that the government's proposal address only some of the many problems they say exist within the program.
"Right now, the H2-A program is unequipped" to handle farmers' labor needs, said Allison Crittenden, the director of congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation. "On first glance, it looks like there were a lot of efforts made to modernize the program and create efficiencies within the application process."
The current law, for example, requires that farmers hire every American citizen who arrives seeking farm work anytime during the first half of the season, Crittenden said.
"Right now, if eight Americans walked in wanting to work, I'm obligated to hire them, no matter what," said Brian Garwood, the owner of Garwood Orchards, a fruit farm in northern Indiana. "It doesn't matter if I already have all the workers I need. I'm also required to provide them housing, even if I don't have any room."
The Labor Department's proposal would reduce that window to 30 days into the season, Crittenden said.
"That minimizes disruption," she said.
The proposal also would allow farmers to stagger the arrival of foreign laborers. Many farms need more workers during harvest time than earlier in the season. This would allow them to bring in workers when they are required, Crittenden said.
Several key changes for the H2-A program for which the Farm Bureau has advocated are not included in this proposal, however.
The new rule would not offer an option for undocumented farmhands currently working on American farms to obtain legal status, which leaves a significant percentage of America's farmworkers in danger of being deported. Neither does it allow nonseasonal farms -- like dairies -- to import workers.
"We have labor needs that are year-round," said Alan Bjerga, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation. "Right now, the H2-A program is the only game in town [to legally bring in foreign farm laborers]. The fundamental thing that dairy needs is for the program to be year-round."
The proposed changes to H2-A come as use of the program has increased dramatically over the last several years. In 2010, fewer than 55,000 migrant workers entered the United States on H2-A visas. But by 2018, that number ballooned to nearly 200,000, according to the State Department. Ninety percent of those workers are from Mexico. Jamaica, Guatemala and South Africa are the next-leading origin countries.
The number of migrant workers is expected to continue to grow. The reason for the increase is that few American workers are willing to do the work, farmers say. And the current workforce, which comprises many undocumented workers, is quickly aging.
Long, hard work
Being a farm laborer requires long hours of physically taxing work, often performed in hot weather conditions, Crittenden said. And because the work is seasonal, workers can't rely on it for year-round income.
"Most of the time during harvest time, they're working on picking contracts, and they're making around $16 per hour," Garwood said. "These guys are not stealing American jobs. There are no American workers coming to pick peppers for nine hours a day."
Garwood has used the H2-A program for the last five years. He says it's his only option for getting enough labor to keep his farm in business.
"Is it flawed? It's deeply flawed," Garwood said. "But we have to use it because it's the only option we have."