One reality of being a U.S. farmer is that workers can be hard to come by.
"Labor is our biggest issue, always," said Bruce Frasier, who grows onions and cantaloupes in Carrizo Springs, Texas, about 45 miles from the nearest town on the Mexican border. He relies on a combination of local laborers and workers who commute from Mexico to his farm — but the numbers change daily.
"We wake up in the morning and the first question that we want to get answered is how many people we've got," he said. "The number of people [coming from Mexico] tells us what sort of production we'll be able to accomplish that day."
Indeed, farmers are among the most vocal advocates for immigration reform, seeking either a more workable guest-laborer program or broader legalization that will provide them with a steady, authorized workforce. Some go so far as to say that the future of American agriculture depends on it.
Many farmers support an agricultural deal in the Senate immigration bill that was passed earlier this year, and negotiated by representatives of growers, farmworkers, and a handful of senators. The program would offer "blue card" status to workers who have already been employed in agriculture for a certain amount of time and would offer them an accelerated, five-year timeline for obtaining a green card, provided that they stay in agriculture.
The bill also eliminates the current H-2A visa program in favor of a new agricultural temporary-worker program that would admit workers for three years (the current program offers only one-year increments) with the option to renew the visa for an additional three years. The program would be capped at 112,333 visas per year for the first five years, with the Agriculture secretary allowed to make adjustments thereafter. In 2012, the Labor Department approved 85,248 applications for the H-2A program, which has no cap. The department's National Agricultural Workers Survey has estimated that the percentage of farm works not legally authorized to work in the United States has hovered around 50 percent since 2001.
A House bill authored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., goes in a different direction. Instead of offering a path to citizenship for agricultural workers, it replaces the H-2A program with a new temporary guest-worker program that would provide 500,000 visas per year (a number that can be adjusted by the Agriculture secretary) and allow workers to stay in the country for 18 months for temporary work and 36 months for non-temporary work. In order to ensure workers leave the country when their visas expire, the bill would withhold 10 percent of their wages until they returned to their home countries. It would also no longer require employers to pay the travel expenses and provide housing for their employees, as the current system does.
The United States has tried a mass legalization that included seasonal agricultural workers once before, in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. More than a million undocumented immigrants filed applications for the program. They naturalized, or became citizens, at a much lower rate than nonagricultural workers, and many ultimately left the fields after being made legal.
"Once they reached legal status, many of them left the agricultural industry. They went for better jobs in construction or hospitality," said Guadalupe Sandoval, the managing director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association. "I fear we would see something similar in a few years down the road if we had the current immigration-reform package passed."
This wasn't the case for everyone. Peter Nissen, who has owned a farm-management company and labor contractor in California's Napa Valley since 1978, had about 45 workers who applied for amnesty in 1986. About 70 percent are still with him, he estimated, but they are getting older and he worries about his labor supply once they retire. Nissen also thinks his company is the exception, not the rule.
Tough Choices for Employers
In places where immigrants tend to settle, such as California and Texas, farmers can often find labor locally without using the H-2A program to bring workers to the United States. But that means using the I-9 system to verify legal status, which turns farmers into immigration agents who must be careful to only accept legal documents.
"There's these things being forced upon us. We're being made the policemen," said California Central Valley farm-labor contractor Chuck Herrin.
The situation forces many farmers to make a choice: Take the risk of hiring workers they suspect to be illegal, or import foreign workers through the H-2A visa program. Chalmers Carr, a peach farmer in Ridge Spring, S.C., after having problems with Social Security mismatches from workers who falsified papers, turned to the H-2A program in 1999. It requires him to pay for the transportation and housing of workers imported to the United States to help with his peach, bell pepper, and broccoli harvest. The program is expensive, he says, running up to $500 dollars per worker for just the visa and transportation from their home countries — and that's before he provides housing and transportation for them in the U.S. But it has worked.
He started with 100 workers, and was able to grow his business. Now, each season, Carr — one of the nation's largest peach growers — brings in about 550 workers to supplement his 60 full-time employees. Wages are pegged to a local standard, which means he pays about $2.50 above minimum wage. "It's been a very good system for us, " Carr said, "except for the fact that the cost for it and the burden, the regulations, put us at a disadvantage to peers in the industry."
He's also lucky because the peach-farming process requires him to bring labor in before fruit needs to be harvested. A major complaint among farmers who need only harvest workers is that by the time they have cleared the bureaucratic red tape, crops are rotting in the fields.
Indeed, part of the H-2A program requires Carr to prove he has advertised the jobs to U.S. workers. Over the last three years, he says, he has advertised for 2,000 jobs. Four hundred sixteen U.S. workers applied, and 391 never showed up or quit within the first few days. "There is no U.S. worker willing to do this work," he said.
Tough Situation for Workers
Carr likes the revamped guest-worker program Goodlatte has proposed because it removes the requirements on employers to pay for housing and transportation. But he thinks the 500,000-visa cap is still insufficient. In the end, he says, some combination of the House and Senate programs would be ideal. "I do hope they meet in the middle, because if we can get a bill through the House and we can get to conference, I think overall everybody will win," he said.
Not all H-2A dependent workers agree the House bill is the better program. Ron Underwood, who has a mink ranch in Iowa, thinks it will be overly complicated and lacks the incentive for people to participate. "You've got to remember something," he said of the current population of undocumented immigrants. "These people are already here and they're already dealing outside of the legal system that exists. They're good at it."
There has to be an incentive for them to come out of the shadows, he said.
Underwood faced the choice of hiring workers here illegally or using the H-2A program, and ultimately settled upon the latter about eight years ago. An agricultural-exchange program helped him find Andre, a Ukrainian worker who has the specialized skills Underwood needs for his ranch. Andre (he declined to give his last name) works for him about 10 months each year before going back to Ukraine, and each year Underwood starts the H-2A process about five months in advance to make sure Andre arrives on time.
The current system works for him to an extent, but Underwood says it needs to be simplified and streamlined. "It's extremely expensive and cumbersome and you can see why; once you get involved in it, employers and employees choose not to participate," he said.
"I'm as conservative as they come out here but I believe we have to be flexible and we have to be able to embrace change," Underwood said, adding, "I do think we have a moral obligation that if we're going to use this labor, we have to make it more accommodating to them."
Farmworker advocates point out that tying laborers' legal status and visas to employment can create a situation ripe for worker abuse: They can't complain for fear of losing their sponsorship and being deported.
"Labor protections that we take for granted — sick days, collective bargaining, overtime pay, or the ability to denounce workplace abuse — are nonexistent in U.S. agriculture," Salvador Sarmiento, the legislative affairs director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said of the many day laborers that pick U.S. crops. "The lack of immigration status allows for abusers to threaten detention or deportations at any sign of workers organizing for better conditions."
Sarmiento said that guest-worker programs don't necessarily solve these problems because workers who speak out against their treatment risk being blacklisted from all recruiters.
"When I was a farmworker you never thought anything was wrong," said Librada Paz, who suffered sexual and physical abuse as a young, female farmworker after coming to the U.S. illegally as a teenager. "New people who come in every year, they have no idea what's right, what's wrong, what's abuse or what's not."
After spending a few years in the fields, where she and her siblings would migrate with the harvest season to pick apples, oranges, tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini, she wanted to go back to school. She still worked on farms, but having received legal status as part of the 1986 amnesty, she was able to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Today, Paz is a farmworker advocate through the Rural and Migrant Ministry in New York, where she sees many migrant families moving to flee crackdowns by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Families are being deported every single day, and just in the place where I live "¦ almost everybody has been detained," she said.
She also worries that by the time Congress eventually passes a law — which is all but certain to exclude anyone who has had trouble with the law from obtaining legal status — there may be no one left who is eligible.
"I think people deserve a chance if they've been here many, many years," she said. "I don't want to see a lot people that have now been here for so long and they now can't qualify for a permit to work here or they can't qualify for residence."