WASHINGTON, D.C. — Farmers and others who hire immigrant laborers to harvest their crops and perform hundreds of other agricultural tasks under the H-2A visa can expect a new, modernized program before the spring of 2019, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said on a visit to a New York farm.
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, legislation is making its way through Congress with one provision under consideration that H-2A visas would no longer have to be seasonal – a measure pushed by the dairy industry and introduced by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) during a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee in July.
The committee voted 29-22 to attach an H-2A visa amendment to the 2019 U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding bill that begins Oct. 1.
In an address to the American Farm Bureau Federation in January, President Trump said his administration was committed to modernizing the H-2A program with an aim to substantially reduce its complexity, and introduce plans to incentivize farmers to use the E-Verify employment program that would ensure their farm workforce is authorized to work in the United States.
In an email to Farm World on August 24, the USDA did not give a date when the new program would be announced, saying only the “USDA continues to work with the Department of Labor (DOL) and DHS as they undertake the rulemaking process.
“USDA teams are currently working diligently on IT (information technology) modernization that would serve as a tool to assist farmers in navigating the complicated H-2A program.”
Speaking to groups of farmers at the Altobelli Farm in Valatie, N.Y., a couple weeks ago, Perdue said, “We are hoping to have by the next growing season, spring, a more automated way for farmers to apply for H-2A visas for workers. It will be on farmers.gov and it will be like (the website) TurboTax.”
The program is meant to help farmers fill out the complicated but crucial documents required to hire workers through H-2A and send them directly to the agencies that require the forms. Responding to Perdue’s comments, farm owner John Altobelli said, “I think the idea will free up a lot of issues. If you miss anything in those forms, it can cause some real problems.”
Perdue also said Congress needs to pass legislation to reform labor laws that affect farmers. “A statutory fix is needed. We need a legal and stable system for farm labor,” he added. “The current system is cumbersome and convoluted.” Farm labor laws have not changed since the 1980s.
Accompanying Perdue was Republican New York Rep. John Faso, who supports another new proposal introduced in July, the AG & Legal Workforce Bill (H.R. 6417). The legislation would create a new agricultural guest worker program – H-2C – that would be available year-round to agricultural employers, such as dairy farmers, who cannot apply for H-2A. The measure would also increase the number of visas and create an opportunity to exceed the cap on visas if necessary.
“The legislation will make the process much smoother,” Faso said. “There are some people in Washington who like to kick the can down the road. I think that farm labor is somewhere we can build trust.”
One group opposing the legislation, however, is the national advocacy group Farmworker Justice. “Expanding the H-2A program to year-round jobs would contravene the purpose of the program and further distort the agricultural labor market,” said Bruce Goldstein, president.
“Expanding it does nothing to address the roughly 1 million current farm workers who are undocumented and face the threat of detection and deportation. It makes little sense to allow employers to hire H-2A guest workers to displace their current undocumented and documented farm workers.”
Current DOL statistics indicate the number of H-2A visas granted yearly over the past couple years show an annual increase of about 20 percent. From 2016 to 2017, the number of new grew from 165,741 to 200,049 H-2A visas.
“H-2A foreign workers make up around 10 percent of the nation’s total 2 million season agricultural workers,” according to Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council for Agricultural Employers in Washington, D.C. “That’s more than doubled in the last five years.”
The latest DOL figures show just over 67,000 H-2A visas were issued for the first six months of 2018. Last year, Michigan farmers employed 6,432 foreign workers, the most of any Midwest state, the government reported.