By FRANK PRIESTLEY
American farmers and ranchers face a "Catch 22" when it comes to hiring and verifying the status of their workforce. It is illegal to knowingly hire someone who is not authorized to work, but the employer is limited in what he or she may ask to determine who is authorized.
If an employer requests more or different documents when the originals appear reasonable, the employer could be subject to a Justice Department investigation, or employment discrimination lawsuits. On the other hand, if the employer accepts documents but is later notified by the Social Security Administration that information contained in the documents does not match agency records, then the employer may not be safe from prosecution for knowingly hiring an illegal worker.
What's needed is a workable program to allow for recruitment of temporary agriculture workers from abroad, and provide an opportunity for some current workers to apply for permanent U.S. residency.
Currently, the only alternative to a program that works is called the H-2a temporary guest worker program. But H-2a is expensive because it requires prospective users to offer free housing and transportation as well as a minimum of the adverse effect wage rate (AEWG), which is an average wage derived from all field and livestock workers in a region.
Moreover, the program is excessively bureaucratic, requiring subsequent approval from four different government agencies including Labor, Homeland Security and State, as well as the state government employment agency in the given state. This program has been a magnet for litigation in the past, forcing growers to spend large sums in court or accept the demands of taxpayer funded attorneys. Most year-round livestock operations are not eligible for H2-a, even though labor difficulties are no less of a problem for these than for other livestock operations.
Farm Bureau supports a comprehensive approach to reforming the nation's immigration laws. The solution should include the following components:
· A reliable verification system: The current system should be strengthened to make it simple, conclusive reliable and timely. It should provide a safe-harbor for employers acting in good faith.
· Adequate transition provisions: Farm Bureau supports a range of approaches that provide some farm workers with the opportunity to apply for legal status.
It could take years to grow a worker program with less than 4 percent of overall hires to a size that can accommodate the majority of U.S. agriculture's labor needs.
Frank Priestley is the president of the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.