Central Florida's Agri-Leader
After years of political struggle, proponents of immigration reform that will enhance access to a consistently available legal workforce for farmers agree that victory is within reach.
The question, however, is whether the proposed solution will actually solve current problems.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a longtime advocate of immigration reform who represents a largely agricultural congressional district, supports an enhanced, improved agricultural guest worker program that builds upon the existing foundation of the H-2A program.
“Not only does that make sense economically, from the perspective of being able to put food on our tables, but it also makes sense from the standpoint of the people who are coming here to work - if they are only interested in working, but not in becoming citizens,” Rooney said. “The problem is, these workers get into the country to work and are afraid to go back to Mexico or Guatemala or wherever, because they're afraid they won't be able to get back into the U.S. again. So if they knew they could get back in relatively easily under a new program, whatever it's going to be, I think we'd see more people going home at the end of the season.”
That is an important consideration for Rooney, because it would help protect the availability of seasonal agricultural labor while also addressing the broader issue of controlling illegal immigration.
Meanwhile, Rooney said, the larger challenge is that the current H-2A program is riddled with problems. “If you talk to anybody that employs a large number of migrant farm laborers,” he said, “you learn that growers usually consider it more problematic than anything else. For example, it's an administrative nightmare.”
Michael W. Sparks, CEO and executive vice president of Florida Citrus Mutual, agrees with Rooney that the clearest path to better representation of the best interests of farmers is an improved version of the current H-2A program.
Nearly half of all citrus harvest workers are now in the U.S. under H-2A, according to research done by Florida Citrus Mutual.
“Florida citrus is one of the H-2A agricultural groups that actually shows that it can work,” Sparks said. “That's demonstrated by the fact that over the last five years, we've gone from 15 percent to about 50 percent of our crops being harvested by H-2A employees.”
However, Sparks agrees with critics of H-2A who say it is too cumbersome and expensive for growers. Costs include transportation to and from a worker's home country and housing while he or she is here.
“But the first and foremost issue that we have to address is the current wage rate under H-2A,” Sparks said.
Under U.S. Department of Labor regulations, field workers now earn almost $10 an hour, with the most recent pay hike being mandated in January. Since that is considerably higher than the minimum wage for U.S. employees, it makes no sense and extracts a competitive financial toll from farmers who elect to function legally, as opposed to those who do not.
“We have to have an appropriate rate that is fair to the harvester,” Sparks said. “But it also has to be fair to the grower.”
Sparks also said that a new and better H-2A program should be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the Labor Department. “The Labor Department does not appear to be sympathetic to agricultural needs,” he said.
Mike Carlton, director of labor relations at the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, agrees that a much improved guest worker program is essential to the needs of Florida farmers. But he does not believe that the H-2A program can be effectively salvaged.
“Most people in the agriculture industry nationally do not believe the H-2A program is fixable,” said Carlton, a key participant in a new national Agriculture Workforce Coalition formed in January, with FFVA as a founding member. “It's just too far broken.”
Carlton agrees with Sparks that one critical flaw is the artificially high wage rate. “But it also is bureaucratically unmanageable on a large scale,” he said. “At the very least, it will have to be supplemented with a new program.”
A key issue of Carlton and FFVA is whether eVerify authentication of workers is a component of an immigration reform package that can pass the Republican House of Representatives. That's because, based on recent experiences in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, mandatory eVerify requirements put a damper on the ability of growers to recruit and retain workers.
“It's difficult to imagine the H2A program, as it is,” Carlton said, “being a large enough vehicle to provide the kind of work force we need if, in fact, a bill passes Congress that requires eVerify.”
A new guest worker program must have two primary components, Carlton said.
“Number one, it has to protect the American work force first and also anyone else who is here and wants to work in agriculture,” he said. “But secondly, it has to provide reasonable access for growers to obtain workers when they need them. And based on the way it is structured, the current program is simply not capable of doing that.”
It remains to be seen whether a new program can be created with political compromise from both Republicans and Democrats in a severely gridlocked Washington.