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Area farmers make case for commuter guest worker program
The H2-A program may work to provide temporary agriculture workers in North Carolina, but what Yuma farmers want is a commuter guest worker program to fill their crews harvesting their vegetables.
That's been a familiar refrain for them over the past decade and one they once again emphasized during a temporary worker program conference in Yuma this week.
The conference was held by ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of employers working to advance better immigration law that will meet the needs of agriculture and other industries for immigrant unskilled workers. Co-sponsors were the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association and Arizona Farm Bureau.
Starting off the conference, Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, related how farmers in that state managed to make the H2-A program work for them in providing the labor they need.
The federal H2-A program allows farmers to bring in foreign workers temporarily if they can't find enough people in this country to work their crops.
As labor shortages have become a growing issue here, Yuma-area farmers and farmworker contractors have turned to the H2-A program in recent years as well.
“I couldn't do what I do without H2-A,” said Steve Scaroni, a farm labor contractor who provides crews for Yuma and Imperial County farmers.
But farmers here agree the program is burdensome, costly and time-consuming — and the rules keep changing. Particularly onerous, they say, is the program's requirement that the employers provide housing — costly housing that often sits vacant because many Mexican workers would rather commute daily from their own homes to work in the fields.
“I have housing they never use,” Scaroni said. “They prefer to live in Mexico and come across (the border) every day.”
But the current system is “inhumane,” said Yuma farmer Steve Alameda. He described the commuters' long days, traveling miles to get from their homes to the border, then waiting as much as four hours to get across, followed by a bus ride to the fields and hours of working. And increasingly they face another long wait at the border to get back home at night.
“We must have a better guest worker program,” one that is easier for the workers and their prospective employers, said farm labor contractor Sonny Rodriguez, who has been advocating for a border commuter program for several years.
Any guest worker program “must recognize the border region has different needs than other parts of the country,” he said. There's been various efforts in recent years to get a pilot commuter program for the border, or at least a waiver of the housing requirement, to no avail.
Rodriguez was feeling more optimistic, though, after the conference that was attended by high-level representatives of such groups as the Arizona and California state farm bureaus, American Farm Bureau and Western Growers, who are on the front line in pushing for a new and better temporary agriculture worker program. And now ImmigrationWorks USA has joined the fight.
It's certain the labor shortage problem won't go away, observed Fernando Quiroz, executive director of American Beginnings, who assists people with immigration and citizenship. He said the current commuting workers are getting old and younger ones aren't stepping in to take their jobs.
And it's a myth that if workers were paid more, the labor shortage would go away, said Jason Resnick, general counsel for Western Growers. Furthermore, he said, farm laborers will become even scarcer when the economy improves and other job opportunities become available.
Another concern, warned Tamar Jacoby, CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, is that the way agriculture has been doing business is coming to an end.
“The enforcement noose is tightening. Falsified documents will end and e-verify (federal register of legal workers) is coming to a theater near you. You've got to get engaged so when the new era comes, you have a program that works for you.”