Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Current Immigration system is highly bureaucratic, dysfunctional and devastating the farm Sector as well as put families apart. "It's like a ticking time bomb that's going to go off. What are we going to do when USDA reported, Chinese fruits and vegetables often have high levels of pesticide residues, heavy metals and contaminants, the report noting widespread pollution, high pest infestations and a long history of heavy chemical fertilizer and pesticide use. What's next? Titanic is history.
WASHINGTON - With a nationwide farmworker shortage threatening to leave unharvested fruits and vegetables rotting in fields, the Bush administration has begun quietly rewriting federal regulations to eliminate barriers that restrict how foreign laborers legally can be brought into the country.
The urgent effort, under way at the U.S. departments of Homeland Security, State and Labor, is meant to rescue farm owners caught in a vise between an impossibly complex process to hire legal guest workers and stepped-up enforcement that has reduced the number of undocumented planters, pickers and even middle managers crossing the border.
"It is important for the farm sector to have access to labor to stay competitive," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. "As the southern border has tightened, some producers have a more difficult time finding a workforce, and that is a factor of what is going on today."
The push to speedily rewrite the regulations is also the Bush administration's attempt to step into the breach left when Congress failed to pass an immigration overhaul in June that could have addressed the reality of American farms, where almost three-quarters of the workers are thought to be illegal immigrants.
On all sides of the farm industry, the administration's behind-the-scenes initiative to revamp H2A farmworker visas is fraught with anxiety. Immigrant advocates fear the changes will come at the expense of worker protections because the administration has received and reportedly is acting on extensive input from farm lobbyists. And farmers in areas such as California's San Joaquin Valley, which is experiencing a 20 percent labor shortfall, worry the administration's changes will not happen soon enough for the 2008 growing season.
"It's like a ticking time bomb that's going to go off," said Luawanna Hallstrom, chief operating officer of Harry Singh & Sons, a third-generation San Diego County family farm in Oceanside that grows tomatoes. "I'm looking at my fellow farmers and saying, 'Oh my God, what's going on?' "
Officials at the three federal agencies are scrutinizing the regulations to see if they can adjust the farmworker program, a highly bureaucratic system so unwieldy that less than 2 percent of American farms use it to bring in foreign workers. They are considering a series of changes, including lengthening the time workers can stay, expanding the types of work they can do, simplifying how their applications are processed and even redefining terms such as "temporary."
Administration sources, who declined to discuss the details of the proposals, said they are moving aggressively.
The agencies also are working on possible changes to a separate H2B visa program that brings in seasonal workers for resorts, clam-shucking operations and horse stables, among other businesses.
The administration has pursued the project discreetly, perhaps wary of the friction that immigration has generated between President Bush and the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which has strongly opposed many of the initiatives that Bush has pursued.
The attempt to fix the H2A visa program is one of more than two dozen initiatives the administration announced in early August. Most dealt with increased enforcement, the most prominent being a measure that would force companies to fire workers with so-called "no match" discrepancies in their Social Security data or face punitive action from the Department of Homeland Security. When Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the enforcement surge, he also acknowledged the bind that agriculture faced.
"Even putting aside no-match letters, just our increased work at the border was actually causing a drop in the number of workers coming across," Chertoff said.
David James, an assistant secretary of labor, said the president asked his department, which has jurisdiction over most H2A rules, to review the entire program.
The current program, managed by all three agencies, is famously dysfunctional. There is no cap on the number of H2A workers allowed into the United States, but just fewer than 60,000 H2A applications usually are filed annually to fill more than 3 million farm jobs.
Farmers must apply for workers about a month in advance, but the agencies often fail to coordinate their response in time for the harvest, which farmers can't always predict. At Hallstrom's farm, where tidy rows of tomato plants run almost to the ocean's edge, half of the 1,000 workers are in the H2A program.
Hallstrom remembers putting in an emergency request for H2A workers one year and getting them 60 days later. She said the laborers spent two weeks pulling rotten fruit off the vines and the farm lost $2.5 million. "Devastating," Hallstrom said.