Our Visa System, or the Little Dutch Boy in Reverse

By David North on May 21, 2014

Remember the story of the heroic little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in a hole in the dike, thus saving his nation from a flood?

Sometimes I think our visa system is a reverse of that metaphor; there are a lot of grown-up, well-dressed, imposing adult males standing around the dike making sure that no one intrudes on the status quo by fixing the existing leaks.

An old friend, a U.S. Senate staffer who is not in the immigration business, called me the other day to say that he had heard that there was a leak in the visa-issuance system that, he said, could easily be fixed by regulation and did not need legislation.

The problem, he said, was that H-2A farmworkers from Jamaica and other British-connected Caribbean islands, could come to the United States without getting a visa, and that Wikileaks documents showed much anxiety within the U.S. Embassy in Kingston over that issue, as it would be easy enough for criminals (and maybe terrorists) to get into the H-2A program and thus enter the United States without the screening that the visa process affords.

He asked, "Can't something be done about getting that fixed? Let's change the regulations so that all H-2A farmworkers, like all other H-class workers, have to get visas."

Without even thinking about the "let-'em all in" philosophy of the current administration, my reaction was not optimistic. I vaguely recalled, from my work on farm labor matters for the Secretary of Labor back in the LBJ days, that even then farm workers from what were still called the British West Indies could enter without a visa. It was a small element in a much larger set of issues.

My reaction was that while the workers had no political clout at all, their employers and the island governments would gang up on any U.S. official who sought to impose visas on these regular rounds of entrances and (one hoped) exits. But I agreed to look into the matter after he gave me the citation to the specific regulation (CFR 212.1 (b) (1) (i) ). Here is the pertinent part:

(b) Certain Caribbean residents —

(1) British, French, and Netherlands nationals, and nationals of certain adjacent islands of the Caribbean which are independent countries. A visa is not required of a British, French, or Netherlands national, or of a national of Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, or Trinidad and Tobago, who has his or her residence in British, French, or Netherlands territory located in the adjacent islands of the Caribbean area, or in Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, or Trinidad and Tobago, who:

(i) Is proceeding to the United States as an agricultural worker;

(ii) Is the beneficiary of a valid, unexpired indefinite certification granted by the Department of Labor for employment in the Virgin Islands of the United States and is proceeding to the Virgin Islands of the United States for such purpose.

(An aside: One can ignore the reference to the Dutch and French islands as a diplomatic gesture; further, U.S. H2-A employers are content with their relations with the English-speaking island governments, and would not want to complicate matters by introducing new languages to their fields (Papiamento and French); also, those islands are too heavily subsidized by their colonial authorities for the residents to be very interested in U.S. farm work.)

Returning to the text of the regulations, I realize that there is another factor in preserving this visa leak — the interests of U.S. Virgin Islands employers, and therefore of that government. (See (ii) above.) The Democratic delegate from those islands, Dr. Donna Christensen, may not have a vote on the House floor, but she has a good friend in Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the delegate's committee assignments are proof of that. (I used to write for the St. Thomas Source, a virtual newspaper there.)

So the current visa wording would be supported by some elements of U.S. agribusiness (notably on the East Coast), their members of Congress, the various island governments (including the USVI), their diplomats, possibly by some in the State Department who would not want the additional workload, and, finally, by tradition. On such an issue, those are major forces for business as usual.

A glance at Google entries, however, indicates that my friend has reasons for concern. According to a 2011 account in The Gleaner, Jamaica's leading newspaper, the American embassy had reported in cables that it was worried about the "the way the system now operates" and that it was "conducive to corruption, political favouritism, fraud and potential threats to the U.S. national security."

The report continued that new entrants to the H-2A work force are recruited from among workers who had previously secured recommendations from Jamaican politicians. It is a sad reflection on a country if a chance to work on a U.S. farm is handled like a piece of patronage.

Despite the embassy's recommendations, that particular leak in the dike remains in place, and this is all too typical of how our system works.