Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


March 1996, Volume 3, Number 3

Agricultural Guest Workers

In February 1995, the National Council of Agricultural Employers released a proposal for a supplementary foreign worker program to fill temporary or seasonal US jobs. One year later, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA) unveiled the NCAE proposal as the "Alternative Agricultural Temporary Worker Program" or "Temporary Agricultural Worker Amendments of 1995." Its purpose is "to provide a less bureaucratic alternative for the admission of temporary agricultural workers."

Gallegly's proposal, to be offered as an amendment on the House floor in March 1996, would permit growers, labor contractors, or associations wanting to employ foreign farm workers to file at least 25 days before the job was to begin a labor condition attestation (LCA) with their state Employment Service office. The House Agricultural Committee is expected to endorse the Gallegly proposal at a hearing on March 7, 1996.

Employer LCAs would have to promise to pay the higher of the local prevailing wage or the minimum wage; spell out working conditions, housing and transportation arrangements that do not adversely affect local workers; and promise to give preference to US workers who apply for jobs until five days before work begins. Local ES offices would review these LCAs "only for completeness and obvious inaccuracies."

Farmers, labor contractors, or employer associations could apply for workers, and the workers who could be employed under the program could be in the US or abroad. If the workers were outside the US, growers would submit their names to INS and consulates abroad, and these named workers would be given H-2B visas to enter the US at the consulates or at a port of entry. Growers could recruit foreign workers anywhere and in whatever manner they wished. Foreign workers would have to leave the US when their jobs end or be subject to deportation, unless another employer promises to hire them within 14 days.

To encourage workers to leave the US, 25 percent of the foreign workers' wages would be placed into a federal trust fund, which foreign workers could reclaim with interest in their country of origin. Program costs would be financed by contributions equivalent to social security and unemployment insurance taxes that would not be paid by growers.

No one knows how many foreign workers might be requested under the Gallegly proposal. There are, at most, two million workers employed some time during the year for wages on the nation's crop farms, and perhaps one million of them work six months or more. If 25 percent of the current farm work force consists of unauthorized workers, and there is a one-for-one substitution between new H-2B and unauthorized workers, then there may be 250,000 to 500,000 foreign workers admitted under the Gallegly H-2B program each year.

If H-2B workers averaged $1,000 per month, then 500,000 workers employed for an average six months would generate $3 billion in wages, of which $750 million would be withheld. The employers who hired these workers would contribute about nine percent of their wages to pay for the administration of the program, or about $270 million per year.

The NCAE proposal is remarkable for the enormous differences between it and the current H-2A program. The H-2A requires farm employers wishing to employ H-2A temporary foreign workers to take a series of steps to prove that US workers are not available, and then to offer US and foreign workers housing at no cost, contracts that guarantee work for at least three-fourths of the period that the employer asserts workers are needed, and other benefits and protections.

The NCAE proposal, by contrast, extends the procedure used to admit H-1B temporary foreign professionals to agriculture. Under the H-1B program, employers "attest" that they are paying prevailing wages and satisfying other conditions so as to have no adverse effects on similar US workers, and then the US Department of Labor relies on complaints from US workers and other employers to investigate charges that employers are violating their attestations.

In February 1996, the agricultural guest worker issue is about where it was in early 1984. At that time, Congress was considering the legislation that eventually became IRCA, and the major sponsors of the Simpson-Mazzoli legislation, as well as the Reagan administration, were opposed to a special agricultural program.

In June 1984, Congress nonetheless adopted the Panetta-Morrison amendment that would have established a free agent guest worker program for agriculture--what the New York Times termed one of the top ten political stories of 1984. Then-Senator Pete Wilson (R-CA) persuaded the Senate to approve a similar free agent program in 1985.

Two of the key allies of the growers in 1984-85 still influence immigration policy. Leon Panetta, who led the fight for the growers in the House, is President Clinton's chief of staff, and Clinton reportedly assured California farmers in September 1995 that "they would be taken care of" if labor shortages developed.

California Governor Pete Wilson, who led the growers' fight in the Senate, in an August 1995 session with the California Farm Bureau, asserted that he had not changed his position since the mid-1980s. The Wilson program would have allowed foreign farm workers to "float" from farm to farm in the US, and encouraged them to return to Mexico by withholding, according to Wilson, one-third of their wages.

Wilson said it has been difficult to sell such a guest worker program because of the public tendency to link illegal immigrants and guest workers. Wilson said that, if he were President, he would expand the US Border Patrol to reduce illegal immigration, and push to have a guest worker program instituted.

The rationale for guest workers is that the labor market is not responding properly to market signals such as rising wages, or that government intervention is needed to prevent market adjustments that would have negative effects, such as rising food prices. However, if a new guest worker program begins before any of these adjustments can be observed, it will never be known how easily the farm labor market can adjust to changes in its labor supply.

The Clinton Administration and the House Judiciary Committee oppose Gallegly's proposal, arguing it would only lead to more illegal immigration. Fourteen organizations, from the American Friends Service Committee to the United Methodist Church sent a letter to House Speaker Gingrich on February 14, 1996 opposing the Gallegly's proposal, and the effort to include it in the immigration bill without hearings on its features.

About 60 farm organizations, from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers sent a letter to senators and representatives on February 12 to urge the inclusion of the Gallegly proposal in immigration reform legislation.

Barbara Ferry, "Guest worker plan draws kudos and critics," States News Service, February 23, 1996; Marcus Stern, "Guest-worker plan gets big push in House," San Diego Union Tribune, February 18, 1996; Charles Lunan, "Keep out tomatoes from Mexico, but don't send away Mexican laborers," Sun-Sentinel, February 13, 1996; Ray Sotero, "Stepped-up border efforts may create labor shortages," Ag Alert, February 7, 1996; S Lynne Walker, "Last-Chance Labor," California Farmer, August 13, 1988, 14.