One of the Worst Foreign Farm Labor Programs Just Got a Little Better

By David North on November 15, 2019

When it comes to powerless (and exploitable) foreign workers, it is hard to argue that anyone has less power than the alien shepherds (mostly in the West), as we pointed out more than five years ago.

They follow their flocks by day and night, and are often housed in a trailer if not a tent; they are paid as if they work 40 hours a week, but they are on duty 24/7/365. They may not see humans other than fellow workers for months at a time. And to add insult to injury, they are called "Sheep/Goat Herders" instead of shepherds.

I am not sure that the government did anything for them during the LBJ years when I was assistant to the secretary of Labor for farm labor, but we tried. I remember my then-boss, the late Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz, complaining to me "that for every sheep rancher there was yet another member of the U.S. Senate."

The ranches are spread out in such a way as to maximize their political power.

In those days the shepherds were Basques from Spain; although admitted as farm workers, many were also refugees from Franco. The shepherds now come from Mexico, South America, and Mongolia.

The admittedly narrow good news that emerged this week was an announcement by USCIS that the prior convenient fiction about their working period was no longer going to be used. Their hiring for repeatedly rolled-over three-year periods was done within a program that was meant for temporary, not permanent workers. The ranchers can't do that anymore, they must try to prove that these are temporary, not permanent jobs. Hiring aliens for permanent jobs is much more difficult than for temporary ones.

Winning the court case that led to the change in USCIS policy was the Hispanic Affairs Project of Western Colorado.

We cannot know at the moment what the full the impact of this decision will be on what is essentially a medieval labor practice — herding the sheep into the mountains for the summer, and back into the valleys for the winter — but it certainly looks like a move in the right direction.

It is also an unusual decision for the Trump administration, which usually sides with the vested interests, but maybe in this case those winning are the ones wearing the sheepskin vests.