Farmers, ranchers and others who need manual labor have limited options for a legal workforce, says a recruiter for the H2A and H2B guest worker programs.

Libby Fulton Whitley, president of MAS Labor, says the agricultural labor force is contracting, “even with a nationwide unemployment rate of 8.3 percent. Migration from Mexico is at net zero,” she said during a session on immigration at the recent Texas Produce Convention in San Antonio.

Less labor could mean more fruit and vegetable production moving offshore.

The H2A program has supplied relatively few workers for agriculture. In 2011, only 290 applications were filed for H2A to fill a need for 2,108 workers. The H2B program, which recruits non-ag workers, had 415 applications to fill a need for 11,037 workers in 2011. And only 310 applications have been filed to date in 2012 to fill more than 8,000 jobs.

“Texas is the second largest user of H2A workers in the nation,” Whitely said. “But it does not supply a significant percentage of workers in agriculture. If you have a vacuum, something will fill it. That’s what has happened in Texas.”

The H2A program has been around a long time, since 1952, with changes made in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act and with more recent alterations. “The Department of Labor has broad authority over the program,” Whitley said.

She said the Bush Administration was unresponsive to needs to change the program from 2001 through 2007 but made some adjustments in 2008. “President Obama suspended the Bush H2A regulations,” she said, adding the Obama administration kept “the worst of the 1987 and the Bush regulations and added more.”

She said wage rates increased from $8.70 per hour to $9.08 and other costs, including recruiting fees, shifted to employers. Visa fees and transportation costs were changed to be due to the worker at the end of the first work week, Whitley said.

The “vast majority” of H2A workers are Mexican.

Several legislative proposals have been made to improve H2A. “Accommodating current workers will be essential.” That includes from 1 million to 1.2 million unauthorized workers currently in the workforce.

She said H2A has “significant drawbacks” that limit widespread implementation. “We need a contract-based program that’s flexible. Several bills have been proposed. We would like to see the best ones meshed together.”