WORCESTER (Massachusetts) TELEGRAM

March 26, 2017

 

Central Mass. farmers seek pruning of immigration rules to let workers into U.S.

 

By Laurie Schlatter, Correspondent

Immigration reform and Americans' love of fresh fruits and veggies are two peas in the multibillion-dollar pod of the agriculture industry, and the link between the two is the H-2A visa program.

What it comes down to is this: The pursuit of good food grown locally is not so simple if you're a farmer in need of people to work the fields and orchards.

The growing season at Davidian Bros. Farm in Northboro is supposed to get underway if the handful of legally authorized H-2A visa foreign workers begin arriving by April 15 as owner Ed Davidian has requested. If they are delayed by red tape, as happened for several weeks last year, he said, "It throws everything you do on a farm off kilter."

The H-2A visa is the only legal program authorized to bring people into the United States to fill temporary agriculture jobs. Those foreign farmworkers are not immigrants as defined by the program run by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The visas are issued by the U.S. State Department for a one-year stay. To renew a second and maximum third time, the workers have to leave the country for three months and reapply for readmission.

The numbers break down this way, according to Mr. Davidian, who is also president of the Massachusetts Farmers Bureau Federation:

● 1.5 million to 2 million workers are needed on American farms to follow the sun as the growing seasons shift across the nation.

● Of those, about 1 million are U.S. citizens and foreigners with the appropriate documentation such as H-2A visas or Green Cards, which grant permanent resident status.

● Of the total number of needed farmworkers, 500,000 to 700,000 are undocumented people.

Those unauthorized farmworkers are "a very small piece" of the 10 million undocumented workers in this country, said Mr. Davidian, but the farms that rely on them "are extremely nervous" with the freshened emphasis on immigration enforcement. "If they (the unauthorized workers) are bothered, targeted, picked up, they will not show up for work."

He expects the combination of government enforcement and workers' fears will also be reflected in farmers' need for more workers with H-2A visas. The U.S. State Department issued more than twice as many of those visas last year than four years earlier: from 65,345 in 2012 to 134,368 in 2016.

"Although still accounting for less than 10 percent of all seasonal farmworkers, employment of H-2A workers has nearly tripled in the past five years ... despite extreme regulatory hurdles, government inefficiencies, and high costs," according to a letter written by congressmen last June to the U.S. Department of Labor and CIS.

"And the number is going up dramatically again," Mr. Davidian said. He estimated 160,000 to 170,000 visas will be sought this year, further straining an already stumbling bureaucracy.

American farmers seeking to access that legal but numerically limited labor pool must meet four qualifications and go through a very detailed three-step process to achieve U.S. Department of Labor certification stating that a lack exists of sufficient qualified U.S. workers willing to fill positions at the prevailing wage. And the farmers must accomplish all of that 75 days "in front of date of need," said Mr. Davidian.

Last year, farmers had to deal with paperwork getting hung up, an early warm spell followed by a blast of bitter cold, and "a lot of the H-2As didn't make it in time. Georgia lost its blueberry crop, and Massachusetts farms were three to four weeks late in getting manpower."

So far this year, "Nobody's called me in a panic," said Mr. Davidian, who represents about 6,000 members on 2,000 or 3,000 farms in Massachusetts.

He said he and Mass. Farm Bureau Treasurer Mark Amato visited Washington, D.C., earlier this month as part of the effort with the American Farm Bureau Federation "trying to get a correction to the farmworker level."

James Field, director of business development at Frey Farms in Illinois, a major fruit and vegetable producer nationwide, testified March 9 to the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture that the H-2A program provides about 150,000 of the needed 1.5 million seasonal workers. He further stated that "those working in agriculture without proper documentation should be able to make their presence known and join the H-2A program." A legal solution of immigration reform, he said, would increase stability for farms and workers.

Just such a reform measure is in committee in Congress, Mr. Davidian said, and it "is one that both sides will be able to work with and change the status of (the 500,000 to 700,000) employees who are here. ... This bill is strictly for agriculture, nobody else. It has a chance for being welcome. We'll see."

Congress may opt to repair or replace H-2A completely, he said, but other legislation would change the H-2A visa from one year to three years and address a drawback that requires a worker to be assigned to one employer at a time. It's a lot of red tape, Mr. Davidian said, to authorize the movement of workers from one farm to another as the harvest season progresses for different crops.

All the legislation that has been introduced in 2017 on H-2A visas has been referred to the Judiciary Committee; none share jurisdiction with the House Agriculture Committee.