Caught up in the swirl of confusion surrounding the immigration issue on Capitol Hill is a guestworker visa program that serves as a lifeline for many U.S. farmers.
Called the H-2A visa, it allows farmers to bring in guestworkers from outside the U.S. to do the work that Americans will not do. To qualify to bring H-2A workers to their farm to harvest fruits or vegetables, prune trees or do other work, farmers first have to advertise the jobs to Americans. Once they can’t get enough domestic workers, they can apply for foreign workers, but they have to pay to get the paperwork through the federal government. They then must pay to get the workers to the farm and back to their home country and provide housing. They also must pay the H-2A workers a higher minimum wage — $14.12 an hour in Washington state — established by the federal government. This is to prevent farmers from using “low-cost” H-2A workers to displace domestic workers.
No problem there, since finding enough domestic workers is all but impossible as tree fruit and other plantings increase. The growing U.S. economy also attracts domestic workers to the construction industry and other jobs that offer year-round employment and fringe benefits. All of that forces farmers to look overseas for help through the H-2A visa. In Washington alone, the use of H-2A visas is up nearly 60 percent this year to 30,000 guestworkers.
The main reason H-2A is an issue is its high costs and the slow federal processing that farmers have encountered, especially during the Barack Obama administration.
But beyond that, H-2A workers are limited in the amount of time they can be in the U.S. That means they are unavailable for year-round jobs at dairies and other agricultural occupations that are not seasonal.
In the meantime, the agricultural foreign guestworker issue was split off from the immigration issue as the U.S. House tried to get its arms around the issue. An alternative program, the H-2C program, would be cheaper and provide year-round guestworkers, but set a limit low enough to make farmers worry that they would come up short. After all, the whole point of a guestworker program is to make sure farmers have enough workers, not limit them. Even though the limit would increase over time, it was seen as a poison pill by some agricultural groups that depend heavily on handwork.
The result was the U.S. House fumbled another important issue, to the detriment of U.S. farmers. Though some in the House continued to work to get an improved guestworker program passed, others appeared to be intent on holding off until after the November elections.
That’s too bad. It’s not like Congress has a sterling record for incumbents to run on. One would think that passing a bill to help U.S. farmers harvest the food they need to feed Americans would be a top priority among elected leaders.
Apparently, though, they can wait until after the election. But U.S. farmers can’t.