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House weighs bill to streamline guest-worker program

New visas would make it easier for farmers to hire temporary help

WASHINGTON — A House committee Thursday considered a streamlined guest-worker program that supporters say would ensure a sufficient supply of — documented — farmworkers in the U.S.

The American Specialty Agriculture Act would eliminate much of the current H-2A visa program for foreign agricultural workers and replace it with a streamlined program, H-2C, meant to make it easier for farmers to hire temporary workers.

“The bill (is about) immigration reform, but it’s really a jobs bill,” said Dan Fazio, director for the Washington Farm Labor Association, who testified in support of the bill at Thursday’s House Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

In Arizona — where as many as half of the 75,000 agriculture workers may be undocumented, by some estimates — farm officials said they like the idea behind the bill.

“We’re still looking at the specifics of the bill, but we support the concept,” said Joe Sigg, director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau. “It’s a positive change to immigration reform.”

He said the bill offers the promise of making the process of getting foreign workers less bureaucratic.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said his goal is to make sure that farmers have enough legal immigrant labor not only during their busiest times, but year-round, too.

The bill would take oversight of the program from the Labor Department and hand it over to the Agriculture Department, which would issue the new visa. It would also ease regulations on housing and transportation that employers currently have to provide workers, among other changes, and would allow the government to issue up to 500,000 H-2C visas a year.

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One supporter testified Thursday that the lengthy process of hiring workers under the current H-2A visa program has driven some farm owners to hire undocumented immigrants.

“These improvements would provide a valuable alternative to (farmers who are now) employing illegal aliens,” said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association.

But the director of Migrant Farmworker Justice Project said he does not believe the bill will solve the problem of undocumented people already working in the fields.

“They’re still going to be in the shadows,” the director, Robert Williams, said at the hearing.

The bill would require that employers first consider Americans citizens or legal residents for farm jobs before hiring foreign workers. But if the farmer cannot recruit enough American citizens of legal residents, he could request H-2C visa laborers.

Sigg said he does not expect a flood of American workers to apply under the new program.

“The native-born simply don’t work in those jobs,” he said.

The H-2C bill is Smith’s second this year dealing with immigrant labor. He has also proposed that employers in all states be required to use E-Verify, a federal government database for employers to identify legal workers from undocumented immigrants.

“We told Smith that we would not support E-Verify,” Fazio said. “So he gave us this.”

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Workers harvest lettuce at a farm near Yuma.