By Suzanne Gamboa
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP)--Agriculture employers won't have to prove their workers are in the country legally under a House bill that would create a new temporary farm worker program.
Instead, the federal government would be responsible for proving agricultural workers legal under the proposed legislation, which has the strong backing of Speaker Dennis Hastert. Federal law requires employers to verify they are not hiring undocumented workers.
Rep. Bob Barr, R-GA, pointed out during a recent House Judiciary Committee meeting, that a bill sponsored by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-CA, would treat agriculture employers differently than other employers on that requirement.
Pombo's legislation would create a three-year alternative to the H2A program, which provides an accessible work force for farmers and other growers, and allows them to obtain temporary visas for agricultural workers.
"I have some unease about this because of the precedent it would set," Barr told the committee, which was scheduled to continue debating the legislation Wednesday.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-TX, speaking in favor of the legislation, tried to reassure colleagues, saying he hoped the precedent would be "one that is not repeated."
But not all were persuaded.
"Some hopes are greater than other hopes," said Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, the committee's ranking Democrat.
The legislation attempts to attack a perennial issue for Congress, growers and farm workers. The H2A program has its origins in the bracero program, in which Mexican laborers were granted temporary visas to work on U.S. farms and railroads.
Growers, say the H2A program isn't working because its regulations have become too complex and time consuming.
"Many Texas growers are beginning to find that labor availability related problems are taking more of their management time," said Dewey Hukill, a Texas Farm Bureau committee chairman and a High Plains farmer, at a June 15 hearing on the bill. "Today we are beginning to experience the diminishing supply of farm labor that other states have been experiencing for several years."
The bill is likely to go to the House floor for a vote because Hastert supports it.
The Clinton Administration has said it strongly opposes the bill and the president would be advised to veto it because among other reasons, it could displace American workers, depress farmworker wages and eliminate protections for farm workers. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.
Trying to curb the bill's chances, Democratic lawmakers argued that agribusiness would be treated differently from other employers on immigration enforcement and use of guest workers. And, they said, the legislation would discard basic worker rights guaranteed in the H2A program.
Smith said the bill could reduce the number of undocumented workers in the country, because they would leave and return as guest workers. But Rep. Howard Berman said a number of provisions in the bill would cause the opposite. Guest workers tend to stay, he said.
"I suggest the bill before us plows a huge hole . . . through the efforts . . . to deter illegal immigration," Berman said.
The legislation would create a worker registry of domestic agricultural workers. Employers could search the registry for workers. The federal government would run the registry and alert workers of jobs.
Growers who fail to find workers through the registry could bypass the H2A process and automatically obtain guestworkers. But opponents said growers would not be required to hire or recruit U.S. workers before importing immigrant labor.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-TX, succeeded in amending Pombo's bill to require that growers provide housing and pay workers for at least three-fourths of the work days they were promised. The latter amendment is aimed at protecting workers when a job is finished early. Growers would not have to pay in the event of bad weather or other "Act of God."
The committee rejected two other amendments she offered, including one that would have required growers give U.S. workers the same benefits offered temporary workers.
The Department of Labor has said the country has an oversupply of farm workers. A total 41,827 workers were hired under the H2A program in 1999, said Charlene Giles who oversees the labor department's temporary worker programs. The farm U.S. farm labor force is estimated at 2 million.