While House Republicans are justifiably complaining about the large numbers of illegal aliens crossing our southern border, some of them are simultaneously pushing legislation that would expand both the H-2A (farm worker) and H-2B (non-ag worker) programs. One might think that the addition of millions of de facto illegal aliens, often with agricultural backgrounds, would meet the growers’ needs — but that is apparently not the case.
The nation is coming up to the end of the fiscal year (on September 30) and the Republicans are threatening to close down the government unless they get a number of concessions. Two of these relate to the foreign worker programs.
One proposed expansion is more threatening than the other: that is the one dealing with the H-2A program. The House appropriations bill language would change the fundamentals of this program, which now supplies workers on a seasonal basis. The new bill would expand H-2A to year-round jobs, something that the nation has (appropriately) avoided for decades, and something that the dairy industry has been seeking for a long time.
I happen to know something about that industry, as both sets of grandparents and my father had farms and cows at various parts of their lives, and I did a bit of twice-daily milking as a teenager. There is considerable working ongoing to automate the milking process, but there will likely always be a need for farmhands.
Society should be organized so that both dairy farmers and their workers are paid a living wage, but that is not likely in the immediate future.
The H-2A program has another major disadvantage that H-2B does not. Workers and employers in it do not pay payroll taxes, thus the industry is being subsidized, in effect, by the hard-pressed Social Security, Medicare, and federal unemployment insurance trust funds. H-2A is also a much larger program than H-2B; the first is measured in the hundreds of thousands of alien workers, the second is measured by the scores of thousands.
The House bill includes language that would expand the number of H-2B workers by adding in returning workers from last year, thus expanding the cap to well over the usual 66,000 per year. Administrations (both Trump and Biden) have often done this by executive order in the recent past, so this is not a major change for the worse.
So if the administration has to cave on one of these issues, better it be on the H-2B front.