A Sad Little Announcement: Some Nations Want the Crumbs of Our Economy

By David North on January 19, 2011

You had to read between the lines to get the full meaning, but USCIS issued a sad little immigration announcement last week.

It was about the H-2A (agricultural) and H-2B (non-ag) foreign worker programs run by our government to benefit employers who would rather not cope with the demands of the American labor market. Or, as USCIS says of the H-2A program, it "allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs."

The announcement was that USCIS, following consultation with the Department of State, had decided that 15 new nations, mostly very small and all poor, are now eligible to send their citizens to work in the U.S. in the two listed foreign worker programs.

The nations include nine Pacific Islands countries (Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa (formerly Western Samoa), Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides)). The others are Barbados, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Macedonia, and Slovenia.

It is a sad announcement for two reasons: first, these nations apparently want to send their people to the U.S. for what are generally miserable, usually short-term, ill-paid jobs. Secondly, I know from personal experience that the chances are that many of these nations, particularly the smallest ones, will be disappointed.

If you have any knowledge of political patronage, you might think that the allocation of blue-collar jobs to various nations would be within the power of the U.S. government, like the allocation of AID funds is.

It is not. As part of our "business-is-usually-right" system of government, the employers in the two programs – not the government – decide what nations get these scruffy jobs.

So the USCIS announcement simply made the unemployed of people from the-soon-to-be-inundated islands of Tuvalu (because of global warming) eligible for H-2A and H-2B jobs, but unlikely to get them, because what U.S. employer would want to go to these islands (pop. 8,500 and declining) for recruiting, islands which are served by an airplane or two a week? (Tuvalu, now independent, used to be part of Gilbert and Ellice Islands, a British colony.)

The announcement reminded me of an office visit I had more than 40 years ago when I was Assistant for Farm Labor to the U.S. Secretary of Labor (the late W. Willard Wirtz). My visitor was a not-very-impressive little man, a lesser employee of the colonial government of what was then British Honduras (now Belize). His mission was a difficult one. He wanted the U.S. Department of Labor to intervene with the sugar industry in Florida to get them to lay off some of their Jamaican H-2 (now H-2A) cane cutters, and hire cane cutters from his jurisdiction. (Cutting cane by hand is probably the worst job in agriculture.)

I soon found that we (the Labor Department) had no influence over that decision, and that the cane growers were quite happy with their relationship with the Jamaicans. It was pointed out to me that the only way to fly to Florida was Belize-Jamaica-Miami. Why should the sugar people pay for that extra leg of the flight, when the less expensive Jamaica-Miami flights were available? Why should the cane growers want to experiment with another government, when they got along so well with that of Jamaica?

There was an additional level to the sugar industry-Jamaica relationship that I only learned about later. That was the blacklist maintained quietly by the Jamaican government – any H-2 worker who had displeased any sugar cane grower was placed on a national blacklist and would never be referred to the H-2 program again. The blacklist kept the workers in line, and there never was a hint of a union in the Florida cane fields, though such organizations were strong in Jamaica.

At another time in my checkered career I was the Washington correspondent for the late Fiji-based newsmagazine, Pacific Islands Monthly, a publication later killed by its owner, Rupert Murdoch. Because of that one-time connection I noticed an immigration-related irony in the USCIS list, which is probably not known to that agency.

Both Nauru and Tuvalu are now on the list of would-be suppliers of ill-paid workers. A generation ago Nauru was a very rich little nation, because the island sat on a supply of high-quality phosphate fertilizer. Nauruans would not deign to actually mine the phosphate themselves, so they hired, and abused, Tuvalan migrants to do the dirty work.

Now, with the phosphate money gone and largely wasted, Nauruans are competing with Tuvalans for the same ill-paid off-island jobs.

Nauru has another, more recent immigration policy connection; until the Liberal (conservative) Party government fell in Australia a few years ago, that country used Nauru as a processing center (i.e., warehouse) for refugees who had been seeking admission to Australia. There were many problems, as this news article indicated.

The island government, at or near bankruptcy, was happy to take on the assignment. Subsequently a Labor Party government in Australia ended the arrangement.