Rules May Make Hiring Foreign Farmworkers Easier

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The Bush administration is posting new rules for bringing foreign farmworkers into the U.S. The goal is to make it easier for farmers to find a work force that is here legally. Critics say the new rules will drive down wages and housing benefits, and put Americans out of work. The regulations would take effect over the next year, starting in January.


Congress repeatedly failed to change immigration rules, so now the Bush administration is trying it on its own. The administration has issued revised rules designed to make it easier for farming companies to hire legal foreign workers. There are more than 500 pages of revised rules. But as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, many analysts doubt the new regulations will solve the problem of undocumented migrant labor.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The Bush administration's recent immigration crackdown has posed an almost existential threat to agriculture. It's estimated some 70 percent of farm workers are undocumented. There's a guest-worker program for these jobs called H-2A, but it's rarely used, because employers complain it's a bureaucratic nightmare. Often as not, they say, workers arrive after harvest time, leaving crops dead on the vine. The new rules are meant to change that. There are more than 500 pages of revisions, and interest groups say they're still plowing through the details. But Bruce Goldstein of Farmworker Justice says the changes are not good for farm laborers.

Mr. BRUCE GOLDSTEIN (Executive Director, Farmworker Justice): Really low wages, really low benefits, no real government oversight. So, the net result would be, you know, we, the government, are going to allow you exploit workers legally instead of allowing you to exploit them illegally.

LUDDEN: Goldstein is especially upset by a change in the way growers must prove they can't find U.S. workers. Right now, the Department of Labor must certify a domestic shortage before a grower can petition for foreign labor. Under the new rules, growers themselves would attest to a shortage and send proof they'd tried to recruit Americans. Erik Nicholson of the national farm workers union believes this could pose a temptation to replace American workers with foreign ones.

Mr. ERIK NICHOLSON (International Director, Guest Worker Membership Program, United Farm Workers of America): These workers do not enjoy the same real rights of speaking out, articulating complaints, about the terms and conditions of their employment, because if they do, what we've seen over and over again is they face sudden firing, eviction from grower-controlled housing and deportation.

LUDDEN: A Labor Department official insists the new rules would actually do more to protect U.S. workers. He says growers would have to start recruiting them earlier, and those who try to cheat would face substantially higher penalties. Growers welcome changes they say would streamline the cumbersome, multi-agency guest-worker program. But beyond all the nitty-gritty and the new regulations, both sides share a major complaint.

Mr. CRAIG J. REGELBRUGGE (Vice President, Government Relations & Research, American Nursery & Landscape Association): The fundamental shortcoming of any regulatory approach is that it can't get at the enormity of the crisis.

LUDDEN: Craig Regelbrugge is with the American Nursery & Landscape Association. He says the new rules do nothing about the many undocumented farm workers already in the country who, he says, are not allowed to apply for guest-worker visas.

Mr. REGELBRUGGE: You've got hundreds and hundreds of thousands of experienced farm workers who have the special skills, who are part of the fabric of our society, whether we want to admit or not. It would be a devastating blow to agriculture to lose the talent pool that is currently doing the work.

LUDDEN: Growers and labor groups want those workers here now to be legalized. Years ago, they hashed out compromise legislation to do that and say they'll keep pushing for it. The new guest-worker regulations are slated to start taking effect in January, but labor advocates say they'll consider possible legal action to put them on hold. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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