H-2A reform bill tied to election

Harry Cline

If nothing else, this “too close to call” 2000 presidential election has made wonderful fodder for the world’s comedians.

It has also filled the airways and pages with political banality and endless trivia.

As curious and joke-filled as the Bush-Gore dead heat has become, there are many consequences of the White House stalemate. One is the work of the lame duck 106th Congress where an important piece of farm labor legislation could well be the casualty of the 2000 election.

For more than five years, the only national trade association representing agricultural employers has been trying to amend the federal H-2A agricultural workers program.

H-2A was created to allow farmers to bring in foreign workers if there are no local workers to harvest crops. It has been employed in several areas, but at best has produced only limited success.

Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers in Washington, D.C. calls H2A a “nightmare and definitely not a inexpensive labor source.”

The council, made up dozens of farm and commodity organizations, including many from California, has spent $700,000 trying to bring labor and agriculture together into a bipartisan effort to make H2-A more user-friendly. The effort has paid off with the likes of United and California congressman Howard Berman, a UFW supporter, signing off on the reform package.

Hughes told Western Growers Association at its annual meeting, it is a “watered-down” version of what farmers need to ensure a stable workforce. However, it offers solid relief for onerous H-2A regulations. For example, it:

–Allows a farmer to certify the need to seek foreign workers, without as much Department of Labor red tape as now. As long as the forms are filled out correctly, DOL must certify it. This is the same process now used to certify the need for high-tech workers.

–Freezes wages at the current level while DOL studies the issue of H-2A program wages. This is currently $7.27 for California and $6.70 for Arizona.

–Permits producers to pay housing allowances for H-2A workers rather than requiring farmers to provide the housing.

–Also offers a mechanism for illegal workers now to become permanent residents. According to Hughes, about 500,000 illegals have worked sufficient days to quality for this amnesty program. Unlike other amnesty programs, those qualified who apply for permanent status must work 360 days within three to six years after they apply to gain that permanent status.

This compromise effort will be on the table when the lame duck Congress meets beginning Dec. 5. It is expected to convene for about a week. Hughes said the plan was to put the H-2A reform into an appropriation bill where passage is almost automatic. However, with the 2000 presidential election at the doorstep of Congress, Hughes is fearful the plan could be lost.

“The fear is that everything will be stripped out of the appropriations bill, even though Republicans and Democrats have signed off on our proposal,” she said. Hughes urged WGA members to solicit support from their representative for the reform package. One of the key players in this, she said, is Arizona Sen. John Kyl, who is adamant about protecting America’s border from illegal immigrants. He is one of the keys to passage because he is on the Senate appropriations and judiciary committees.

He is a strong supporter of INS, and Hughes said he might not be convinced that this reform would not swing open wide the border doors. “Let Sen. Kyl know you support this reform package,” she said.

She said it wouldn’t. It is not a true guest worker program, but a H-2A reform package.

COPYRIGHT 2000 PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc. All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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