Guest Worker Program Under Review

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Some U.S. farmers face such a labor shortage that they might forego planting. They are the latest group affected by a clash over illegal immigration. With Congress debating how to bring in more labor legally, big farmers, and the Bush administration are looking for answers.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Some American farmers face such a labor shortage they harvested nothing this fall. They chose not to plant, which makes them the latest ones affected by the debate over illegal immigration.

The U.S. is cracking down on illegals. But for two years running, Congress has not agreed on a way to bring in more labor legally. That leaves big farmers and the Bush administration looking for answers.

And we begin our coverage this morning with NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Some 70 percent of farm workers are undocumented. And with ramped up security the southern border in recent years, farmers say they're facing potentially devastating labor shortages. More of them have been turning to a little used guest worker program, the H-2A.

But Sharon Hughes of the National Council of Agricultural Employers says the program's a nightmare.

Ms. SHARON HUGHES (National Council of Agricultural Employers): There're 60 different steps you have to go through. You're dealing with three different government departments.

All workers now have to go through the individual interviews at the council of offices which is causing a real bottleneck. So they're not assured that the H-2A workers are going to be arriving on time anymore.

LUDDEN: In fact, Hughes says some farmers were so worried about finding workers they've chosen not to plant crops this season.

The departments of Homeland Security, Labor and State are working expeditiously by all accounts to streamline the guest worker program at the direction of President Bush.

Scott Stanzel is a White House spokesman.

Mr. SCOTT STANZEL (White House Deputy Press Secretary): The U.S. agricultural community contributes nearly a hundred billion dollars to the U.S. economy. And accordingly, the farm sector must be able to readily access labor - domestic or foreign - in order to remain competitive.

LUDDEN: Officials would offer no specifics on what changes they may make, except to say it's a comprehensive review and they're considering all suggestions.

Growers have put forth a long list. They want to ease what they call cumbersome and ineffective requirements for proving they can't find U.S. workers. They want to expand the type of jobs guest workers can do and let them stay longer, and they want to lower the mandated pay. They complain the formula to set it is unfair compared to other foreign labor programs. Farm worker advocates are not pleased.

Mr. BRUCE GOLDSTEIN (Farmworker Justice Fund): Agribusiness once again is asking for government permission to bring in cheap foreign labor without government oversight.

Bruce Goldstein is with Farmworker Justice.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: The employers are complaining that they can't find U.S. workers, but this is a market economy. If a grower can't find workers, the grower should offer higher than the average wage.

LUDDEN: For all the strife, both sides complain that the administration's review really only amounts to tinkering around the edges.

Mr. CRAIG REGELBRUGGE (Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform): Nobody is operating under the illusion that what the administration is proposing can actually solve the problem.

Craig Regelbrugge co-chairs the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. He says, sure, officials could push through some changes to make the system work better, but they'll take years to have an effect.

Mr. REGELBRUGGE: There are things they may try to do, such as tinkering with the wage rate or labor protections, that will be politically radioactive. And even if they make an honest effort to do something, it'll likely be tied up in the courts for years, and so no relief.

LUDDEN: Meanwhile, Regelbrugge says, the problem of hundreds of thousands of illegal farm workers remains. Growers and farm worker groups have actually spent years hammering out a compromise that would legalize those workers and overhaul the guest worker program. It's a bill called AgJOBS, and it could come up in Congress yet again any week now. But the administration's behind-the-scenes tinkering seems an implicit admission that yet again when it comes to legalizing immigrants, Congress will probably take a pass.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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