It’s definitely hard work, but there are jobs that need to be filled in Louisiana’s agriculture and seafood industries. And if U.S. citizens won’t pick up the paychecks, then migrant workers are waiting for the opportunities.
Unfortunately, hiring legal migrant workers has become an unnecessarily expensive, time-consuming process, says Mike Strain, Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture. With other state departments of agriculture’s backing, Strain and others have recently been calling for streamlining the visa process and reducing red tape to a minimum.
“If we’re going to continue to rely upon foreign workers, then we need an expedited system to bring them into the country, keep track of them and to make sure they return home when their work visas have expired,” said Strain in February.
Overseen by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), temporary or seasonal visas are granted to migrant workers through the H-2A and H-2B programs. To make agriculture-related hires, the certification process must begin at least 45 days prior to a visa being issued. Once granted, a visa is good for a maximum 364 days.
However, before the CIS even gets to the potential employer’s request that migrant worker visas be granted, more hurdles must be jumped. One: an employer must prove he has “actively” advertised the job and had no takers. The employer must also file an assertion with the U.S. Department of Labor saying, essentially, that hiring migrant workers is his only option.
In early March, Commissioner Strain spoke with Farm Press about the migrant worker situation and how it impacts Louisiana. Among his comments:
Why is this on your front burner, right now?
“In Louisiana, we employ more than 3,000 H-2B workers. We have very few illegal workers in the state – we use legal migrant workers.
“But there are a number of problems in the system. One is the current electronic system makes it very difficult for our citizens to hire the people they need. That’s particularly true of the seafood industry – things like peeling crawfish, working with alligators and processing crab. Skilled migrant workers are also prevalent in the sugar industry.
“Normally, you must get approval for a worker every year -- the same tedious process every year. And it’s very costly. You’re looking at $1,000 to $1,500 per worker to try and expedite the system. You must expedite because of all the typical delays.”
On advocating for extended visas…
“Most of the migrant workers, 90 percent, come back year-after-year-after-year. So, instead of a yearly approval we propose a five-year approval. Make it like a ‘worker passport’ or whatever.
“That would save the average farmer – if he employs 15 or 20 migrant workers -- $50,000 to $75,000 over a five year period. That’s just the savings from expedited worker fees. A five-year approval process would cut down tremendously on red tape.
“Plus, the farmer would have a bit more time to get the approvals in order. It is very difficult to get the normal, legal, guest workers to their jobs. These workers are critical for a number of our industries: seafood, sugar, nurseries, forestry, vegetables, cotton gins, everywhere.”
On pinpointing the visa bottlenecks…
“It’s almost as if the guest worker program is very unfriendly. Each agency says ‘well, it isn’t us making problems it’s another agency.’ Well, someone is responsible and let’s work it out.”
In late February, “we were in D.C. at the Department of Labor talking about this. They said ‘well, it’s Homeland Security or your own state Department of Labor.’ But everyone is going through the same thing.
“This new on-line application system done by private contractors has been a disaster.
“These jobs can only be filled if an American doesn’t want them. Americans have first shot. But if they don’t, the jobs still need to be done. It’s very difficult when the migrant workers are delayed 30 or 60 days. Farmers can’t make their crops wait until the workers get there – it’s causing tremendous hardship.”
Has the issue gained traction yet?
“We have strong traction, actually.
“When the NASDA (National Association of State Departments of Agriculture) gets behind something, it begins to get traction. But we must continue to speak up. Farmers need help and need loud voices to speak for them.
“You know, everyone talks about ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ workers. Well, if you make it so hard to get legal migrant worker, guess what the consequences are? Everyone wants to hire legal workers but what’s the choice (if they’re shut out)?”
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