US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Guest workers: New law proposed for immigrant agricultural workers

By Father Tom Joyce, CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The undocumented immigrant community is mostly urban and increasingly suburban. A few years ago it was assumed to be mostly rural--farmer workers to pick our food in California. Cesar Chavez’ crusade for justice to the farm workers, with its boycott of grapes and Gallo wine, strengthened that impression. While many of his workers were not immigrants, the impression stuck because in the 1950s scandals of the abuses of temporary contract labor from Mexico in the Bracero program--a government program to provide workers during World War II--were exposed by the media. That program was terminated in 1964 and replaced by the H-2A visa for temporary workers. It is suppose to weigh carefully the need for farm labor and the availability of American workers before seeking foreign workers. Also it is managed by the Labor Department to avoid the abuses that marked the Bracero program. There are other programs for skilled workers (H-1B, H-IC and L-1) and non-agricultural workers (H-2B). All of these programs have their problems, even the J-1 program administered by the State Department.

This summer the J-1 student workers went on strike at a subcontractor of Hershey Chocolate that illustrated the basic issues with temporary immigrant labor.

Now the chairman of the House Judicial Committee, Lamar Smith (R. TX), has introduced a new law to increase the number of H-2A visas and revise the program to the advantage of growers. Earlier in the summer he had introduced a restrictive measure that would have required all employers to check new hires through the e-verify system--a government data base tied to Social Security numbers. This would have been a requirement for all new hires, not just immigrants. The representative got some blow-back from the farm community, especially those who used the H-2A program. Current programs, the growers felt, was already too restrictive and burdensome at the very moment there was a shortage of farm help. So Rep. Smith came back with ag-jobs bill suited to the growers’ needs. It wasn’t welcomed by advocates for immigrants or farm workers.

The fundamental weaknesses to Smith’s bill are, first it ties employment of the guest worker to a single employer, then gives no hope for the worker to seek permanent residency, and does nothing about the 1.1 million undocumented farm workers. Previously, growers and farm worker advocates had fashioned an “Ag-bill” that addressed these and other workers’ grievances as to pay and work conditions, but it did not survive the rejection of comprehensive immigration reform. Actually, for both worker and grower, it might be better to work illegally than through the H-1A program. It’s less bureaucratic for the farmer and gives greater mobility to the worker. But reform of the program is urgent and essential to comprehensive reform. That’s true of all temporary work visa programs, even the H-1B meant for all those highly educated Indian engineers in Silicon Valley. Even they resent the tie to one employer who often pays them significantly less than American skilled workers.