Friday, February 22, 2019

Farmers are forced to hire more legal immigrants through farm-work visas as illegal immigration drops

U.S. farmers have employed undocumented farmworkers for years, but because of dwindling numbers of illegal immigrants from Central America, farmers are increasingly hiring legal immigrants with H2-A (agricultural work only) visas. "Since 2016, the number of U.S. agricultural visas has grown from 165,000 to 242,000, a record high, according to the Labor Department," Kevin Sieff and Annie Gowen report for The Washington Post. "Amid an intractable debate over immigration and border security, America’s labor force is quietly being transformed, as many employers see no choice but to shift from illegal to legal labor."

Norberto Labrador and brothers apply for temporary work visas
in Durango, Mexico. (By Luis Antonio Rojas, Washington Post)
Until recent years, more than half of farmworkers were undocumented immigrants, according to Labor Department figures. "But now — thanks to border enforcement, the surging cost of smugglers and changes in migration patterns — the number of people crossing into the United States illegally is nearing the lowest level in decades," Sieff and Gowen report. "There are more Mexicans leaving the United States than arriving there."

That has forced farmers to start hiring legal workers, something they have been reluctant to do. "Temporary work visa programs are heavily regulated, requiring employers to provide standard housing for workers and compensation for those injured on the job, for example. Some farmers say the system is too difficult and expensive to navigate." Don Hartman, a vegetable farmer in Deming, N.M., advised: "They need to make [the program] less cumbersome, less regulated, less political. Those people want to come and work and go back home and we need the help. Why can’t they make a single program that will work for both of us?"

Other employers who have traditionally relied on undocumented immigrants, like shrimpers, meatpackers, and construction companies, are feeling the strain. Unlike H-2A visas, which have no cap, H-2B visas, which cover other unskilled labor, are capped at 66,000 annually. "This year, employers applied for 97,800 nonagricultural visas in the first five minutes of the visa lottery, far more than ever before, crashing the Labor Department’s website," Sieff and Gowen report.

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