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The solution for illegal farm labor: Legalize it

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Aug. 4, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
August 4, 2011 5:24 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Congress: Please don’t let American farmers remain hostage to your hopelessly deadlocked arguments over illegal immigrants.

This is the growing season and – for many crops – the harvest season. Washington is one of the nation’s leading agricultural states, which gives us a front row seat on the sweaty, dirty-fingernailed world of farm labor.

In that world, the labor-intensive harvesting of fruit and vegetables would be crippled without illegal farm workers.

The orchards east of the Cascades offer a dramatic example. When it’s time to pick the cherries, for example, hundreds of orchardists need hundreds of workers on their trees – right then, not a week later.

That requires a massive influx of laborers, an influx that local communities cannot provide. The human river of farm workers – many of them illegal – makes the harvest possible.

Many industries could fare well without illegal workers. Tens of millions of citizens now lack jobs in this country, and unskilled Americans should not have to compete with illegal immigrants who will work for less under harsher conditions. We get that.

The United States – which welcomes more legal immigration than the rest of the world combined – also must secure its borders. Part of national security is knowing who is entering the country, why they are entering and what they are doing here. We get that, too.

But farmers need hundreds of thousands of workers who currently lack legal status. Barring the workers from the country isn’t a solution; neither is tolerating illegality.

The obvious remedy is a seasonal guest worker system that works.

The idea isn’t a novelty. Decades ago, the Bracero program allowed farmers to bring in workers from Mexico – though it failed to protect those workers from exploitation and abuse.

Today there are H-2A visas, also designed to permit seasonal migration of farm labor with far greater protections. But the H-2A program is so cumbersome and so maladapted to agriculture that few farmers use it.

Some Democratic lawmakers are trying to address the problem by giving permanent legal status to illegal farm workers. Whatever the virtues of this idea, it amounts to amnesty, and anything that looks like amnesty isn’t going to get through Congress in the foreseeable future.

So fix the H-2A program. Farmers avoid it because it entangles them in unrealistic rules and requirements. They must document advertising for local labor, for example, and try to guess the number of workers they’ll need long before they actually know.

Make the H-2A visas workable for farmers and farm workers, then start cracking down on those who continue to break the laws against hiring illegal workers. And don’t wait on the political class to stop its bickering about border fences, E-Verify, Arizona, drug-running, anchor babies and whatnot. Farmers need legality now.

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