Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Seeking guest worker solutions

By Rep. Donna Pence

I serve on the House Agricultural Committee, which heard a presentation this week by the Idaho Business Coalition for Immigration Reform. The coalition is comprised primarily of agriculture groups representing dairy and farm organizations that rely on immigrants to harvest crops, perform field work and milk cows. However, food processors, construction and the general business community also are involved in the coalition.

Much of the discussion concerned the H-2A Program, the only one available to bring in workers. There are 29 types of visas which allow people to come into the country. The H-A2 is the type most agriculture employers use. In it prospective employers are required to advertise the job first to local workers. If no one applies, then they can petition to begin the process of securing H-2A workers. Often this process take 45 days or longer.

Briefly the positive aspects the H-A2 program are:
1. Provides an adequate supply of seasonal workers at known terms and conditions of employment.
2. Benefits alien workers by providing a legal regulated way to work in the United States where their services are needed.
3. Assures U.S. workers have preference to farm jobs before workers are brought in.

Problems associated with the program:
1. Employers decline to take on the challenges of the paperwork involved in the process
2. H-2A labor certifications are often issued late, resulting in delays in approving visa applicants making workers arrive late, which often proves disastrous to perishable crops.
3. The program is designed for crop agriculture and does not take in to account the growing animal agriculture industries where work is year round.
4. Employers have no guarantee that experienced trained workers will be allowed to return to the farm in succeeding years.

Another problem involved is the E-Verify system recently put in place to electronically compare employee information on Form I-9 (a form workers fill out) to information taken from Social Security, as well as Citizenship and Immigration Services records of all new hires in businesses which participate in the system. Some states have made E-Verify mandatory for businesses and others are considering doing so. At present, there are a number of bugs in this electronic system designed to identify persons in this country illegally. This constitutes a definite burden on small businesses as well as legal residents of the U.S.

According to the coalition, employers in Idaho want to hire a qualified, dependable and legal workforce. They can, however, only hire those who apply for the jobs. Right now in agriculture the traditional domestic worker is not applying for employment in the Ag sector. The vast majority of the applicants are immigrants – legal or not.

The intent of the coalition is to promote debate of reforming the guest worker programs in the U.S. They have been traveling around the state since the first of the year discussing with employers the need for immigrant labor and how to improve the availability of such labor while insuring citizens first crack if they so choose.

This is an incredibly complicated issue and one that elicits a wide range of emotional reactions. I applaud the efforts of this coalition of businesses to seek rational discussion on this issue.

Pence, a Gooding Democrat, represents District 25 in the House of Representatives