In testimony delivered Tuesday to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, representatives from the agriculture industry offered options to improve and reform the U.S. guestworker program.
The hearing, "From H-2A to a Workable Agricultural Guestworker Program," is the second in a series of several hearings on immigration issues in the subcommittee.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Chicken Council President Mike Brown, along with Giev Kashkooli of the United Farm Workers and USA FARMERS President Chalmers Carr testified regarding the need for a stable and permanent agricultural workforce.
AFBF pressed for a market-based labor program that would be administered by USDA.
The new program, AFBF says, would serve as a substitute for and eventually replace the H-2A program now in place, and would provide farmers with access to a legal and stable workforce. Additionally, the program would provide employers with certainty that they will have access to the workforce they need at a competitive cost.
Stallman said agriculture's goal is to develop a program that treats workers fairly, while being efficient and economical for employers to use. He noted that workers should be able to work for multiple employers under a structure that enforces worker rights and protects them from exploitation.
Though a long-term, permanent workforce was a key AFBF position, short-term labor needs are also unmet, Stallman said.
"In order to provide short-term stability and an orderly, effective transition to a new guestworker program it is imperative that any legislation approved by Congress include provisions permitting current agricultural workers who might not otherwise qualify to obtain work authorization," Stallman said. "Any new program will take time to be implemented fully."
Poultry Coalition focuses on rebuilding effective documentation
NCC's Brown in his testimony highlighted five major themes for immigration reform on which the coalition he represented – an organization comprised of several meat and poultry groups – is focused: border security; an improvement to the E-verify system as an alternative to a national identity card; clarity in anti-discrimination laws; an occupational visa category that the meat and poultry industry can use that could be tied to local or regional employment; and, options to address the 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S.
In terms of strengthening employment verification, Brown noted that the government does not provide employers with a reliable verification method to prevent identity fraud and confirm whether new hires are legally authorized to work in the United States.
"E-Verify is a step in the right direction but does not work adequately in its current form," he said. "If strengthened, this program will serve as an effective and efficient 'virtual border.'"
Brown said the meat and poultry industry's most common issue, identity fraud, could be avoided by allowing employers to require an E-Verify Self Check – an online service that allows U.S. employees to check their employment eligibility in the United States before beginning a new job.
Continued access to the labor pool is also a key element of the coalition's framework for immigration reform. "An effective occupational visa system may be the most important barrier to illegal immigration," Brown said.
AFBF economists estimate that the agricultural economy and the broader U.S. economy are facing $9 billion or more in lost productivity each year if the agriculture labor force issue is not addressed.
Complete testimonies of all witnesses can be viewed by clicking here.