For President Trump, one of the first positive things he can do is to get away from wall building rhetoric, and instead focus on building a bridge to our Hispanic communities. One way is to revisit our guest worker program—clearly, the H2A visa program is not working. The US needs a more flexible program that allows legal immigrants to work on farms year-round, changing the renewal process to allow workers and companies to have more consistency.
The current H2A program has serious issues. A new investigation has found that the Department of Labor rarely removes employers out of the program, leaving thousands of workers each year exposed to mistreatment, injury, and even death. The report also states that employers have stolen guest workers’ pay, forced them to live in overcrowded or dangerous housing, held them at gunpoint, or even been sent to prison for immigration fraud. Despite all this, companies have been allowed to continue receiving hundreds or even thousands of H-2 visas.
For the agriculture community, it is critical that we have a permanent guest worker program so farms of all sizes can find and maintain labor, not just season by season, but well into the future. To be more efficient, these visas should be for three to five years, so workers will not have to continually go back and forth, running the same corrupt gauntlet to get back into the US.
This is not a new concept, President GW Bush in 2004 suggested creating a guest-worker program that would “offer legal status, as temporary workers, to the millions of undocumented men and women now employed in the United States . . . .”
The US government, thus far has taken an enforcement only position on legislation. With an estimated 75 percent of workers in the agriculture sector having weak, even fraudulent documentation, blanket enforcement puts the industry at serious risk.
There must be provisions for guest workers to come, stay and live here.
Citizenship or amnesty is not the answer either. However, for folks currently already working here, there has to be away for those workers who have not broken any laws other than their illegal presence in the US to be able to adjust their status and remain here to work. Whether these workers have to pay a fine and taxes, it is critical that they be allowed to come out without fear of deportation so they can continue to harvest the crops.
In rural areas like the Eastern Shore, where agriculture plays such a big role, we must push for more protections, and a permanent guest worker program for immigrant labor. In reality, they are already part of our community, and their hard work, work that is vital to a successful Northampton County, needs to be recognized and given priority treatment. As a country, we need to address the unauthorized immigration issue by bringing undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows.”
An efficient and fair permanent guest worker program would benefit both guest workers and American workers by making legal employees more available and giving employers less incentive to hire undocumented workers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a national organization of business owners, has cited a shortage of American workers in hospitals, restaurants, hotels, and construction. As President Bush stated in 2004, “Decent, hard-working people will now be protected by labor laws with the right to change jobs, earn fair wages, and enjoy the same working conditions that the law requires for American workers.”