Farm leaders from the Southeast appeared recently before a Congressional Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement to offer their views on improving guestworker programs and insuring a steady workforce for their states’ farmers.

The hearing on “Regional Perspectives on Agricultural Guestworker Programs” was called by the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, said that while agriculture needs to hire hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers each year to help put food on Americans’ tables, workers with better options choose to work elsewhere.

“That is why many illegal immigrant farm workers who received amnesty in 1986 soon left the fields for other jobs in the city,” said Smith.

“As the president of the American Farm Bureau has stated, any new amnesty such as AgJobs would have the same result.  Because of this, U.S. employers often face a shortage of available American workers to fill seasonal agricultural jobs.”

Growers believe the U.S. Labor Department, which largely administers the H-2A program, is hostile to them and the program, he said.

“Growers are also troubled by the great cost of using the H-2A program, especially the ‘adverse effect wage rate.’ Growers have to build free housing for their guestworkers,” he said.

Smith said he had introduced legislation, “the American Specialty Agriculture Act,” that establishes an H-2C guestworker program “responsive to the needs of American growers and maintaining strong policies to protect citizens and legal workers.”

The bill, he said, puts the USDA in charge of the H-2C program, and it is “attestation-based,” like the H-1B program for highly skilled works. In addition, it requires growers to pay H-2C workers and American workers the prevailing wage, as required in other guestworker programs. 

“The bill allows growers to provide a housing voucher instead of actual housing, which can prove extremely burdensome for growers who may need foreign workers for only a few weeks a year.

“It also opens up the H-2C program to dairies and other agricultural producers that cannot use the H-2A program because they employ workers year-round.”

Finally, the bill allows growers to include binding arbitration in contracts with H-2C workers in order to forestall abusive and frivolous litigation, said Smith.

He noted that the recent report on immigrant labor from the Georgia Department of Agriculture found that his bill “institutes an H-2C program that will be responsive to the needs of America’s specialty growers.” 

Among the agriculture industry representatives giving testimony was Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, who said the success of his state’s agricultural industry rests on a legal workforce that growers can rely on.

“In my view, it is not just a labor issue but also a food safety issue. We need to make sure we know who is on our nation’s farms, and we need to make sure that America does not become reliant on third-world countries to put food on the family tables across this country.”