The Foreign Farmworker (H-2A) Program Should Be Used to Ease the Pressures at our Southern Border

Part 1 of 6

By David North on June 18, 2019

An H-2A visa for a foreign farm worker is a good created by the U.S. government, acting for all of us.

It should be used to benefit the nation at large, but currently it is not. It helps the (usually corporate) employer and, to an extent, the alien worker, but does nothing for the rest of us. That should be changed.

Frankly, there should be no foreign farm worker program at all. But as long as there is one it should be used to help ease the current crisis at the southern border.

More generally, we should arrange our food and agricultural policies so that we can pick our own crops and pay those picking them a decent wage, without resorting, as we do now, to using foreign farm workers with very limited rights to subsidize a small segment of corporate agri-business, and to keep our hand-picked food prices at what are, often, unreasonably low levels.

Further, the current foreign farm worker program leaks. An unknown percentage of the workers admitted as H-2As never leave, becoming illegal aliens. As such, they just add to rural poverty, and augment our already too-large supply of lightly educated workers.

Political reality, however, suggests that a termination of the foreign farm worker program is not in the cards, but that does not mean that nuanced reforms, most of which would not require legislation, could not reduce that flow and convert most of the rest of it into something that helps — rather than hurts — our common interests.

With those thoughts in mind, CIS is publishing a series of blog posts on how to adjust the H-2A program to better serve the broader interests of the nation.

This, the first of these pieces, suggests using the H-2A program to help reduce the pressures from Central Americans (often from rural backgrounds) currently surging across the southern border. Other postings will deal with:

  • How to select H-2A workers most likely to return to their home countries and thus narrow the leakage in the program;
  • How to manipulate the payment system for H-2As, and the remittance system, generally, to maximize the annual return of the workers to their home countries, as well as to reach other migration policy goals;
  • How to use the multi-million U.S. prison population to minimize the need for foreign workers;
  • How to use appeals to our better selves, as consumers, as we do with the emphasis on organic crops, to reduce these unwanted surges; and, finally
  • Some long-range ideas on how to reorganize agriculture itself to minimize any "need" to import workers.

Some of the suggestions, regarding the H2-A (farm worker) program could be used in the smaller H-2B (unskilled non-ag work) program as well. These postings are separate from, but allied to, another CIS series of articles by my colleague, Matthew Sussis, on how mechanization can be used to reduce the need for foreign farm workers.

The H-2A Program Can Ease (but Not Eliminate) the Pressures on the Southern Border

Before detailing our suggestions on this point, let me hark back more than 50 years to an incident I experienced as the assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Labor for farm labor, during the LBJ years. My boss was the late Secretary of Labor, W. Willard Wirtz.

The State Department had referred a supplicant to the Labor Department, and thus to me. He was a British colonial civil servant, unsure of himself in an ill-fitting suit, as he sought what turned out to be Mission Impossible. I had taken him to lunch at the then not-very-impressive Executive Cafeteria in the basement of the old Labor Department Building on the Washington Mall at 14th Street. (It was a serve-yourself entity for GS-15s and above, and it was (perhaps accidentally) a locus of useful networking for those in the upper levels of the Department).

My guest was a distinctly mid-level executive in the then-colonial government of British Honduras (now Belize) and he wanted us to tell the employers of foreign farm workers to hire people from his colony; his government would even pay for the airline flights from Belize to Kingston, Jamaica, so that these workers could join already scheduled flights of such workers to the United States. In short, he was lobbying us to give these not-very-attractive (H-2A) jobs to his people. I had to tell him, no, much as we might like to, we could not help. Once a grower had secured a grant of a certain number of H-2A workers, that grower could hire whomever he wanted (who was not a security threat) from just about anywhere in the world. In those days most employers of H-2A labor used Jamaicans (and some Barbadians) and they were not interested in adding a new population to their work forces. That Belizeans, like Jamaicans and Barbadians, were also English-speaking did not matter; the growers were happy with the status quo.

That policy remains the same. The growers make all the decisions on whom they want to hire, but the nation-of-origin mix has changed, so that now of the 196,404 H-2A visas issued by the State Department in FY 2018, 180,420 went to people in Mexico. The three nations in the Northern Triangle, the source of those currently trying to get into the United States, had these H-2A visa issuances in 2018:

  • Guatemala: 3,936
  • Honduras: 334
  • El Salvador: 145
  • Total: 4,415

So Mexico, a nation that no longer sends us as many illegal aliens as it used to (and those who do arrive can be easily deported) sends us 40 times as many H-2A farm workers as the three nations of concern, despite the fact that Central American and Mexican farm workers are almost indistinguishable from one another; most are of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry, most speak Spanish, most are from poor rural areas, and, presumably, most are male.

Meanwhile, the demand by employers for H-2A workers (note I say "demand" and not "need", a far different term) is increasing each year. As other State Department data indicates, these were the total visa issuances in this class in the three most recent more years:

  • 2016: 134,368
  • 2017: 161,583
  • 2018: 196,404

The logical suggestion would seem to be: Why not make sure that a substantial portion of those H-2A visas are granted to Central Americans who (and this is the hard part) are determined to be likely to return to their homelands following seasonal work in the States?

While I make no argument that an H-2A's life is a pleasant one, I do suggest that it is far better for both the worker and his family to be separated by a few months of reasonably equitable and legal employment in the United States than for all of them to face the life of those hapless migrants, whether forced to stay in Mexico (while awaiting asylum hearings) or crammed into detention centers on our side of the border.

And as to the migration consequences, there is no comparison. In one case the family is in, or trying to get into, the United States without legal status; in the other, the family remains in their legal home, while the breadwinner is in the States, legally, for several months of the year.

Wouldn't it be better all around if, say, 50,000 or 100,000 Northern Triangle families were not in the crowds at our border, while the same number of individual workers were, temporarily but legally, in the United States for part of the year? Would not that save a bundle of grief for the aliens? And a bundle of money for the U.S. government?

Why aren't we doing that right now?

One reason may be that no one in a position of power has figured this out.

Another is that growers, when asked to consider another labor force, can be expected to resist stubbornly. (In my days at the Labor Department, some growers, when encouraged to hire black Americans rather than the Mexican nationals they had during the just-finished Bracero Program, argued that their foremen spoke no English; on the other hand, when East Coast apple growers were encouraged to hire U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico, rather than Jamaican H-2As, we were told that their foremen spoke only English.)

And it can be predicted that growers, arguing that either their profit margins or convenience is threatened, will get much more attention than they deserve from our politicians. Nevertheless, this variation of the H-2A program should be considered.

The Proposed Program

The main part of the proposed new Foreign Farm Workers in the National Interest (FFINI) program is that most users of H-2A program, starting some months from now, would have to hire at least 25 percent of their workers from the Northern Triangle and, a year later, hire at least 50 percent of their H-2As from those three nations. Exemptions would be available for employers hiring, say 20 or fewer workers, and for those who currently have less than 10 percent of their workers from Spanish-speaking countries. These exceptions would be made for pragmatic reasons, to eliminate some employer complaints.

Employers would be allowed only to hire FFINI workers who have been screened to eliminate those with known U.S. immigration violations, and those who have children, siblings, or parents in the United States. That screening would be done by someone other than the would-be employers.

Payment arrangements — something that will be covered in detail in a future posting — would be designed to reward H-2As who returned to their countries, while various disincentives, relating to migration rights, would be imposed on those who did not return. The worker and the worker's spouse would have to sign away any thoughts of coming to the United States in any way (other than through the H-2B program) for at least three years, a document binding on their children as well.

H-2A workers under FFINI (pronounced finny) would be recruited in parts of the Northern Triangle now sending us the asylum seekers — they would not be recruited from those in our detention centers. Other provisions would make sure that these Central American workers were not discriminated against by their employers, who might take out their objections to the program by being unfair to the new set of workers.

I am not quite sure how the resulting new rules would be made operational, but I suspect that a White House willing to take money from the military to build a wall on our southern border could devise an administrative technique to force agri-business to hire a slightly different kind of foreign worker when such hirings would be in the national interest.

In the next posting, we will turn to how the H-2A selection process, generally, can be reformed to make sure as many nonimmigrant workers as possible remain nonimmigrants — rather than turning themselves into illegal aliens.

Editor's Note: David North, while he has been a suburbanite for more than 50 years, has deep rural roots. All his grandparents were born on small farms in the Middle West, as was his father; all grandparents lived on or owned such farms at the time of their deaths. During his years between five and 18 his parents owned three different kinds of small farms, living on two of them; in this period he learned how to milk a cow, clean a chicken house, and till a field. He claims to be one of the few living Americans who shocked wheat behind a horse-drawn McCormick reaper, something he did at the age of 12. (The reaper produced sheaves of wheat, which were then hand-stacked in the field in such a way as to minimize any rain damage; separating the wheat from the straw was done later, by a threshing machine.) Later in life he helped the Labor Department close down the WW II-period Bracero program, that brought large numbers of Mexican men to work on U.S. farms, often under grim conditions.