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Immigration of Agricultural Guest Workers: Policy, Trends, and Legislative Issues

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Several major proposals to revise U.S. immigration policy on agricultural guest workers were introduced in the 107th Congress. Though prior Congresses had debated but not enacted such bills, there appeared to be more momentum in 2001. President George Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox established a Cabinetlevel immigration working group that was expected to offer a guest worker program as part of its package. The September 11 terrorist attacks, however, shifted the immigration policy focus, and the 107th Congress did not act on guest worker bills.

Although the current mechanism for bringing in agricultural guest workers, the H-2A nonimmigrant visa, has experienced a modest surge in recent years, the 28,560 H-2A nonimmigrants admitted in 1999 comprise only a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million farm workers in the United States. While 61% of farm workers in the United States worked in fruit, nut, or vegetable production, a disproportionate number of H2A workers -- 42% -- worked in tobacco cultivation. States in the southeastern United States account for more than half of all H-2A job certifications.

Agricultural employers argue that the H-2A visa in its current form is insufficiently flexible, entails burdensome regulations, and poses potential litigation expenses for employers. They point out that the growing cycle is the actual deadline and that workers must be available when the crops are ready or food costs will rise. Proponents of this view support extensive changes that they believe would increase the speed by which employers could hire foreign workers and reduce the government's ability to delay or block employment. Proponents of an expanded program express concern that the large number of illegal aliens in agriculture, in combination with stepped up enforcement of immigration laws, is resulting in an unstable workforce and a potential labor shortage.

Opponents of revising the H-2A visa requirements contend that there is a surplus of U.S. farm workers and that a sufficient number of seasonal agricultural workers would continue to be available even if illegal migration abates. While many agree that the H-2A process has excessive administrative paperwork, opponents also argue that much of the streamlining proposals, such as further reductions in filing deadlines and relaxation of employment certification procedures, would weaken protections for domestic workers and make foreign workers more vulnerable to exploitation. They warn that an expansion of the H-2A visa would suppress wages of domestic workers and exacerbate "unfair" working conditions for all workers.

Some of the opponents as well as supporters of expanding the H-2A visa agree that unauthorized farm workers who meet certain conditions should be allowed to legalize their immigration status. While some see a legalization provision as an essential part of the legislation, others view it as a deal breaker. Any "amnesty" for illegal migrants, they maintain, only fosters further flows of illegal aliens. Another option -- rather than legalizing the current unauthorized work force -- would establish ground rules for guest workers employed in agriculture for a specified period of time over several years to adjust in the future to legal permanent residence.