Sen. Saxby Chambliss has introduced a bill that would streamline and expand the H-2A guest worker program and allow some who have entered the country illegally to obtain legal, temporary, nonimmigrant status.
Given the current political climate surrounding border issues, the legislation would also beef up Customs and Border Patrol personnel and detention facilities and allow local and state law enforcement officers with proper training to enforce immigration laws along the nation's boundaries.
“Congress will insist on strong enforcement and border security, but most importantly, enforcement must be practical to implement,” said Chambliss. “Farm work is a strong pull for crossing the border, but none of the comprehensive immigration reform bills introduced in the Senate have included reform for the agricultural sector.
Sens. John McCain, Edward Kennedy, John Cornyn, Jon Kyl and Chuck Hagel have introduced at least three other bills that seek to address the problem of the estimated 11 million persons believed to be in the United States illegally. None of the House bills on border security include H-2A program reforms.
The “Agricultural Employment and Workforce Protection Act of 2005” introduced by Chambliss, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, would combine strong border enforcement with practical reforms in hiring and tracking of agricultural guest workers.
The National Cotton Council and other farm groups have made reform of the H-2A program a top priority in recent years. Council leaders thought they had a compromise worked out in 2001, but the events of Sept. 11 put those reforms on the back burner.
Under Chambliss' bill, employers of agricultural workers could also temporarily adjust the status of certain, undocumented workers to seek H-2A participation and avoid severe work stoppages, according to a statement issued Dec. 13.
“While this provides an excellent opportunity to develop into a larger, comprehensive reform of immigration, at the very least Congress must address illegal immigration in farm work,” Chambliss' statement said. “Establishing integrity and accountability in the employment of temporary agricultural workers further ensures a reliable food supply for our nation's security.”
Although the number of illegal aliens slipping into the United States dropped after 9/11, it has been steadily climbing, judging from arrests of those who don't make it. In fiscal year 2005, which ended in September, Border Patrol agents reported stopping 1.3 million illegals, up from 932,000 in fiscal year 2003.
Outrage over the increasingly leaky border with Mexico and concern about infiltration by terrorists has prompted groups of civilians such as the Minutemen to begin patrolling segments of the nearly 2,000-mile-long boundary between the two countries.
But farmers in the Sun Belt and other agricultural regions continue to need more immigrant laborers to perform work that Americans seem less and less willing to do. Few cotton gins in the Mid-South, for example, operate without at least a percentage of Hispanic workers.
“I hear first-hand from producers who have to deal with a costly, time-consuming and flawed program,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte in earlier comments on the need for reforming the H-2A program. “Many producers simply cannot afford the time and cost of complying with the H-2A program. However, in order to find and retain the legal workers these employers depend on for the viability of their operations, they have no alternatives.”
Goodlatte has introduced legislation in previous Congresses to reform the guest worker program, but the House is expected to focus primarily on tightening security along the border in the bills it was expected to take up around Christmas.
The main provisions of the Chambliss bill would:
Require the Secretary of Homeland Security to present to Congress a comprehensive plan for border control and immigration enforcement within the United States. In the interim, the legislation mandates specific border security requirements for the Department of Homeland Security.
Streamline the current H-2A non-immigrant visa program with reduced paperwork that increases agricultural employers' use of a system that protects working conditions of legally employed U.S. and foreign workers.
Establish a blue card incentive to identify and to transition illegal workers into the legal job market, ensuring that agricultural employers have a short but reasonable period of time to enroll workers in legal programs without experiencing a complete work stoppage.
Establish an H-2AA visa program for agricultural “day workers” within commuting distance of the border, requiring that workers must enter and exit the United States each day.