A provision of the immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate last month strikes a good balance between the interests of government authorities and local farmers.
The W-Visa portion of the bill would replace the H-2A program now in effect. It would allow people to cross the border to seek work in the United States for employers who are registered with the government.
This bill focuses on lower-skilled workers who have nothing higher than an associate degree. Foreigners with a bachelors or graduate degree have long been permitted to enter the country and find work, but not so those whose work centers primarily on manual labor.
The new visa would be good for three years and could be renewed indefinitely. Supporters of the proposal believe this would be an improvement over the H-2A program, which allows workers to remain in the country for one year.
The current law benefits fruit and vegetable farmers, who hire workers seasonally. But it does little to help those who operate dairy farms, where employees are needed year-round. The proposed W-Visa program addresses this concern.
Immigrants wishing to obtain a W-Visa would need to apply for it in their home countries. U.S. employees could hire foreign workers only after demonstrating that they attempted to recruit Americans for the jobs they offer but were unable to fill these positions locally. They must first advertise open positions on a U.S. Department of Labor website before they can hire noncitizens.
Employers also would need to pay the minimum wage or a specified wage rate, whichever is higher, according to the bill. In addition, they would need to offer on-site shelter or a housing allowance.
The bill that was passed by the Senate would also help undocumented workers already in the country. Those with jobs in the agricultural industry would be eligible for immigrant status by being granted a blue card.
To qualify, these individuals must show they have worked at least 575 hours or 100 days of employment over a two-year period ending Dec. 31, 2012. This is contingent upon them paying a fine and passing a background check.
Foreign workers with a blue card may apply for permanent resident status after five years of the bills enactment and for U.S. citizenship five years after that. Both the W-Visa and blue card programs would take effect in 2015.
U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said the W-Visa and blue card provisions of the immigration reform bill offer the best opportunities to alleviate the labor problem for dairy farmers. He said these programs would resolve the anxiety of these farmers, who would no longer need to fear federal agents showing up at their door.
One portion of the bill raised concerns among people advocating immigration reform. The W-Visa would allow foreign workers to leave their place of employment whenever they wanted to look for a different job. But they would need to find work within three months to remain in the United States.
Some are worried that three months is not enough time to find another job, given the state of the national economy. But as Mr. Owen pointed out, agricultural work on dairy farms is very specialized, and there are plenty of jobs available. Those seeking employment at another farm are likely to find work within the time limit.
The immigration reform bill has problems in other places, such as calling for a substantial increase in the number of border patrol agents. We hope some of these issues can be improved.
But the W-Visa and blue card programs offer great benefits for local dairy farmers, and Congress must keep them in the immigration reform bill. Foreign workers have long been an integral part of the Northern Country economy, and its time that the laws recognized this.