What is in this article?:
- H-2A salvation for labor-intensive agriculture?
- Immune from arrest
- Producers of labor-intensive crops face difficult choices due to the dwindling supply of farm workers and most of the options are not very appealing.
- All this could lead more farmers to reconsider the one method of legally bringing foreign workers to their farms: The federal H-2A guest worker program.
Immune from arrest
Because H-2A workers have proper paper work documenting their legal presence in the U.S.,they are immune from arrest for immigration status violations while traveling through the states that have recently instituted draconian measures against aliens.
“Worker shortages continue in Alabama and Georgia, in part as a result of the E-Verify laws in those states,” says Wicker.
“The farmers who participate in H-2A know they have a dependable supply of labor, while those who don't are struggling to secure a reliable workforce.”
Tony Ross, a tobacco and soybean/wheat grower near Carthage, N.C., has been obtaining guest workers through NCGA since 1990.
“The H-2A program has been real good to us,” he says. “You just can't find enough local people willing to work in the hot sun here. We work a few local people, but it would be very hard to find as many as we would need to sustain our farm on the scale we need to.”
There have been a few minor improvements in the current H-2A program since it was introduced in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that have made it more palatable. Originally, a farmer had little control over what workers came to his farm.
“Now, we have 'preferred' hiring which allows us to get the same workers from one year to the next,” says Ross. “That means workers who know how we like to do things, and we don't have to retrain every season. That is a big advantage for us.”
In the past, he has sometimes had a problem when a worker would use the program to get across the border and then leave for somewhere else. “But that has not happened in a long time,” he says.
He worries a little that there might be immigration problems for the workers. “What if an employee came here and his visa ran out. Would he have trouble coming back?”
Perhaps the biggest worry is that some force outside of agriculture might pick out the H-2A program as a target. “There is good reason to be concerned about the political side of the program,” says Ross.
“I don’t know what might be around the corner.” If U.S. citizens want farmers to continue to grow safe and abundant labor- intensive crops, then farmers must have access to a more friendly ag worker program, Ross says.
Keeping the workers busy for their whole stay is frequently one of the more daunting aspects of farming with H-2As.
There originally was not much wiggle room in the law, but it has been loosened a little since.
“This was a rigid government program, but we have maximized its flexibility,” says Wicker. “For example, now, when workers finish flue-cured and sweet potato harvest down east, the workers can go west and get in six or seven weeks of Christmas tree harvest if they choose to.
“This allows growers to share the fixed costs, which are expensive. It makes some crops that might not otherwise be feasible to grow feasible to grow. One example might be cucumbers — the only labor intensive time is harvest. By sharing labor, growers can make it work on paper.”
The bottom line: Farmers who have historically avoided H-2A because of the expense and the heavy hand of enforcement agencies are now looking at it again, says Wicker.
“Farmers have concluded that the only thing more expensive than the H-2A labor program is having a bountiful crop ready to harvest and nobody to pick it. There are definitely more farmers considering the H-2A program now.”