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Guest-worker changes target labor shortage

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration plans today to announce the most significant overhaul in two decades to the United States’ agricultural guest-worker program in a bid to dramatically increase the number of legal foreign laborers available for the fruit-and-vegetable harvest.

The revised regulations, many months in the works, are aimed at ending the critical farmworker shortage that came as the U.S. government cracked down on illegal border crossings by making it easier for growers to bring foreign workers to the United States.

After Congress failed to reform the nation’s immigration laws last summer, the White House announced a 26-step plan to tackle immigration issues through administrative fixes. Altering the legal farmworker program would mark the most significant achievement to date.

“There is huge potential here to replace the massive illegal work force with a legal one,” said Leon Sequeira, an assistant secretary at the Department of Labor. The proposed changes to the program, which would relax the rules for the H-2A visas granted to foreign farmworkers, come against a backdrop of growing anger over illegal immigration and tension among the presidential candidates over the contentious issue.

The new regulations could be a boon to growers, who have long complained that the program is too cumbersome to use, leaving them little choice but to turn to illegal immigrants. But the simplified rules are certain to generate outrage among anti-immigration activists, potential legal challenges from farmworker advocates and calls for Congress to pass broader immigration reform.

The proposed changes to the H-2A farmworker program, which would take effect after a 45-day period of public comment, would modify how foreign laborers are paid and housed, and slightly expand the types of industries that can use the program.

The administration also would ease the standards farmers must now meet to show they have tried to hire U.S. citizens first.

“The overarching departmental goal is to encourage the use of the H-2A program to provide agricultural employers access to legal workers,” said the Labor Department’s Sequeira.

The departments of State, Homeland Security and Agriculture each has a role in the program as well. Both the departments of Labor and Homeland Security focused on making the program easier for growers to use, strengthening worker protections and improving enforcement, but critics questioned how these proposals would actually work.

“It’s going to be a question of execution,” said a Senate aide briefed on the changes. The aide expressed concern about some proposals, including a change to the way workers are paid.

One of the Labor proposals would recommend wages based on the workers’ occupation and skill level. “Depending on how it’s done, it has the potential to lower farmworkers’ wages, potentially significantly,” said the aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “Historically speaking, differentiating between experience levels can drive down wages for workers.”

Other Homeland Security changes would allow workers a longer period of time to search for a new H-2A job after their current one ends. They would require employers to certify under penalty of perjury that they won’t change the terms of work. Homeland Security would create a pilot program to track the exits of H-2A workers.

Labor’s changes would substantially boost fines and penalties for employers who violate program regulations. Growers also would be forbidden from passing along to workers any costs incurred from participating in the program.