The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement hosted a hearing Wednesday morning titled “The H-2A Visa Program: Meeting the Growing Needs of American Agriculture?”
The Congressmen in attendance were Elton Gallegly (Subcommittee Chairman) of California, Lamar Smith (Committee Chairman) of Texas, Steve King (Subcommittee Vice-Chairman) of Iowa, Dan Lungren of California, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, Zoe Lofgren (Subcommittee Ranking Member) of California, John Conyers (Committee Ranking Member) of Michigan, and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.
The witnesses were divided into two panels with Jane Oates, the Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training at U.S. Department of Labor, on the first panel and Leon Sequeira with Seyfarth Shaw LLP, Lee Wicker, the Deputy Director of the North Carolina Growers Association, and Bruce Goldstein, the President of Farmworker Justice, on the second panel.
Despite the rain, Wednesday’s hearing marked another busy day in Washington, D.C., and it was good to see a decent turnout for the hearing, in sharp contrast to the poorly attended hearing on Visa Lottery last week.
Chairman Gallegly opened the hearing by presenting the current state and recent history of the H-2A program. However, he went on to say that there were simply not enough Americans to take the jobs of migrant farm workers. The Chairman then pointed to a statistic indicating that 49% of migrant workers admitted to being in the country illegally and that the H-2A Program was handcuffed by bureaucratic processing delays.
Ranking Member Lofgren offered her opening statement by saying that over half of the migrant workers were “undocumented” and continued by saying that the solution is not to deport and replace the 1.5 million illegal farm workers. Instead, she said, “We need to put ideology aside.”
In slight contrast to Chairman Gallegly, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith began his portion of the discussion by assuring the room that there are no jobs Americans will not do. However, he also said “there is one job that neither Americans nor immigrants seem to choose if they have other options – seasonal agricultural work.”
He went on to say, “There is no numerical limit to H-2A temporary agricultural work visas. And yet, usage of the program has always been below expectations.”
In addition, he said, “The H-2A program needs to be fair to everyone it impacts – especially American farmworkers, guestworkers, growers and American consumers. It must provide growers who want to do the right thing with a reliable source of legal labor. It must protect the livelihoods of American workers.”
Ranking Member Conyers then opened his end of the conversation and immediately went on to attack Rep. Steve King (who was in attendance but had yet to speak) by accusing him of wanting to deport all immigrants. He went on to say that all the hearings of the 112th Congress involved the idea of “getting rid of immigrants, especially illegal immigrants.” I’ve covered all the hearings this Congress, and Members have only advocated the removal of illegal aliens, not legal immigrants.
Mr. Conyers went on to say that “Today’s hearing is about how desperately we need immigrants because we can’t find enough Americans” before returning to his “deport them all” line of accusations.
When Mr. Conyers time had expired, Chairman Gallegly stood up for Mr. King and the Committee by assuring Mr. Conyers that he has never heard anyone say we should deport someone who is of legal standing in the United States.
The discussion then turned to Assistant Secretary Oats who, among other things, in her opening statement said the Department of Labor’s job is not to certify documentation, but to ensure benefits and wage protections. She went on to say that wage rates are best determined at the local level instead of in the hands of federal bureaucrats.
In other words, on one hand she yields responsibility to another branch of the Administration (Homeland Security) like a typical bureaucrat, but on the other hand believes in more local responsibly. If the local level can determine wages, how come the same local level is precluded from certifying documentation?
Chairman Gallegly and Ranking Member Lofgren then questioned the Assistant Secretary with little impact, but when it was Mr. King’s turn he made a firm point that “Every nation is a nation of immigrants” and asked whether Mrs. Oats had a conceptual number of Americans not in the labor force.
The Assistant Secretary responded by admitting that she did not have specifics, but understood that it was a growing number, particularly those under age 25. She continued to say that “I don’t think we should decide within the beltway, jobs Americans will or will not do.”
Conversely, when it was Dan Lungren’s turn to speak, he immediately went after the Assistant Secretary like he had a chip on his shoulder. It was probably the most entertaining exchange of the hearing even if it yielded little in the way of constructive debate.
Specifically, Mr. Lungren said, “Your testimony is about as non-responsive as Steve Colbert; H-2A is a failure.” He went on to say that when Congress passes mandatory E-Verify our nation will immediately have a crisis in agriculture because of the failed H-2A system. Furthermore, he scolded the Assistant Secretary by saying “you’re open to opinions, but not opinions of the previous Administration when they tried to make the program work. To hear someone testify that H-2A is working is appalling.”
During subsequent questions, Sheila Jackson Lee questioned wage rates and expressed support for comprehensive immigration reform (amnesty) while Trey Gowdy asked about the online job registry. However, as Mr. Lungren pointed out earlier, the answers were less than stellar and the second panel of witnesses was quickly introduced.
The most interesting statement of the second panel came from Lee Wicker, the Deputy Director of the North Carolina Growers Association, who said that the farm worker solution should not involve amnesty schemes like AgJOBS, but real reforms. He said H-2A puts legal farm workers on farms when people need them.
During questions, Chairman Gallegly asked Bruce Goldstein, the President of Farmworker Justice, if farm workers would stay in agriculture after an amnesty or legalization. Mr. Goldstein responded by saying he believes most of the workers enjoy their jobs and would stay.
Ranking Member Lofgren used her question time to express support for the AgJOBS amnesty proposal and insisted that, with or without E-Verify, the United States is headed for a crisis in agriculture. This line of questions prompted Mr. Goldstein to respond by saying that AgJOBS was a balanced approach.
Mr. Lungren took over the questioning and mentioned that that SAW/RAW Program was intended to accomplish exactly what the Ranking Member and Mr. Goldstein advocated, but when they were legalized they left for other jobs. Mr. Goldstein responded by saying there were no laws to protect their wages and working conditions, hence they left. He then expressed support for a 40% wage increase for farm workers to keep them in agriculture.
Ranking Member Conyers assumed questioning by saying “It’s predicted that we will never get an Agriculture bill through and we know it. Tell me what’s in it, the way we arrange the way we process immigrants from illegal status to legal status.”
Mr. Goldstein responded by saying it would require workers to stay in agriculture for 3 to 5 years in a form of indentured servitude, which was part of the grand compromise. He went on to say that Congress should be more open to adopting it instead of fighting ideological battles. Of course, the ideology he criticizes is the one that opposes amnesty.
Thankfully, Mr. Lungren responded by saying “there is nothing ideological about following the law. Cutting in line is an issue of fairness.” His response really put a close to the hearing and allowed Ranking Member Lofgren and Chairman Gallegly to wrap up the hearing in time for the noon deadline.
All in all, this was a decent hearing. If nothing else, Mr. Lungren made it entertaining. While it is very clear that the H-2A program needs to be reformed and made more user friendly, it concerns me that some Members of Congress are so eager to jump on the AgJOBS bandwagon to “legalize” the “undocumented” workers (otherwise known as amnesty) and expect them to stay in agriculture instead of migrating over to other industries like construction. How does that help farmers pick the peppers or help unemployed Americans?
We need reforms, but proposals like what Rep. Goodlatte offered in previous Congresses that made the program easier to use yet remained temporary. Let’s just hope Congress can stay away from quick solutions like amnesty, which simply pushes our long term problems off to a future Congress.
JONATHAN OSBORNE is the Chief Legislative Analyst for NumbersUSA
Updated: Mon, Jul 24th 2017 @ 3:29pm EDT