Bring back AgJobs? 500,000 workers may be affected

One of the casualties of the immigration bill debacle last summer was the failure to pass a specially crafted provision to cover farm workers. According to the New York Times, the farm industry wants Washington to relax worker protections for the exiting H-2A visa program, that covers only 50,000 immigrant workers, compared to the well over 500,000 illegal workers said to be employed in farm work. The Times wants the AgJob provision of the immigration bill passed.
Here is a description of AgJobs’s impact on illegal farm workers:
AgJOBS provides a one-time program under which farm workers who can demonstrate a
substantial past commitment to agricultural work in the U.S. can, by meeting specific future work requirements over a period of 3 to 6 years, qualify for adjustment to permanent resident status. It is estimated that about 500,000 farm workers will be eligible under the program. This adjustment of status program will enable full-time, permanent farm workers – the most valuable workers on many farms – whose jobs are not eligible for the H-2A program, to earn legal status. It will also provide a transition period during which employers not now using the H-2A program can construct housing.
The TImes’ editorial includes:
The main legal route for agricultural guest workers — the H-2A visa program — has serious problems that need fixing. But the government, which has solicited recommendations from farm groups on how to streamline the program, must not let industry lobbyists dictate the changes. Doing so could erode an already thin layer of protections for workers who do some of the country’s most punishing, backbreaking jobs.
Farm lobbyists have sent the administration a wish list of regulatory and administrative changes that they say will lift unduly cumbersome barriers to participating in and expanding the H-2A program. That program now hires about 50,000 people a year, about 2 percent of the agricultural work force. But the barriers are there for good reasons. They require farmers to give guest workers free housing and decent wages, and to take certain steps — like running newspaper ads — to prove they have tried to hire Americans first. The industry wants to relax those hiring requirements, to charge workers for housing, to pay them less and to widen the range of jobs they do to include poultry processing and meatpacking.
Labor advocates who have spent years fighting for basic protections for farmworkers believe, with good reason, that the industry is looking to exploit the immigration crisis. There is a better way.
Congress should pass a bill known as AgJobs, a bipartisan measure with broad support in the farm industry and among farmworker organizations. It streamlines the H-2A program, but also includes a path to earned citizenship for farmworkers, an important step to curb exploitation in an industry overwhelmingly made up of easily fired, easily abused undocumented workers. Its carefully negotiated compromises are just the kind of approach to immigration reform the country needs — not the heavy-handed half-measures that make up the current shambles of federal policy.

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