Bush's Parting Shot On Guest Worker Program Severely Criticized

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor

A worker picks up tobacco leaves and puts them on a truck that will take them to a barn, in Kinston, NC.

A worker picks up tobacco leaves on a field outside Kinston, NC.
(Photo: D. Graglia/newyorktomexico.com)

Barely a month before leaving office, President George W. Bush has instituted changes in a guest worker program for agricultural workers, prompting harsh criticism from both ethnic and mainstream media and immigrant advocates.

“Backstab to immigrants. President Bush changes rule at the last hour. Silence from Latino leaders,” screamed the cover of New York’s Hoy newspaper Tuesday. “A Cheap Shot at Workers,” was the headline of a New York Times editorial.

The H-2A program (which grants visas under that name) allows agricultural producers to hire foreign workers temporarily when they cannot find Americans to fill job vacancies. The Bush Administration claims the changes — which are expected to become official today with their publication in The Federal Register — will help reduce bureaucratic obstacles for employers who want to hire foreign farm workers.

“Most farmers ignore the program because of red tape and delays that could cost them precious harvesting time,” the Times reported.

The changes, the first major ones in 20 years, include eliminating duplication among state and federal agencies in processing applications, putting in place a new wage formula the department said would be fairer to workers, and increasing fines for willfully displacing United States workers with foreign ones.

“We think the reforms will improve the operation of the program for both employers and workers,” Leon R. Sequeira, the Labor Department’s assistant secretary for policy, told the Los Angeles Times. He said the changes were necessary “to boost use of the H-2A visa program, which has long been criticized as too cumbersome,” the newspaper said.

But critics say the new rules will push down workers’ already low wages (by switching the standard by which they are determined,) reduce worker protections, and make it easier to hire foreign workers without proving a proper search for American employees was conducted.

New York's Hoy newspaper

"Backstab to immigrants": New York's Hoy newspaper

“These changes are devastating for our nation’s farmworkers,” Bruce Goldstein, executive director of Farmworker Justice, said in a press release. “What the department of Labor is about to do is illegal and morally wrong. The [department] should be protecting workers’ rights, not terminating them, especially in this time of economic crisis.”

A summary of the new rules by the D.C.-based advocacy organization said, “For the first time since the program’s creation, U.S. workers could be paid less and receive fewer benefits than the H-2A workers with whom they work side-by-side, if the grower says they were hired before the H-2A workers.”

In turn, the guest workers, the organization says, are vulnerable because they lack the bargaining power of other employees. Since many are indebted to recruiters in their home countries when they arrive, they are forced to accept poor working conditions.

Angela Kelley, of the Immigration Policy Center, told Mexican news agency Notimex the new rules are “cruel, harmful and rushed.”

Not only The New York Times criticized the Bush White House’s decision (which, it said, “harks back to the shameful days of the bracero program of the 1940’s to the 60’s, when Mexicans were recruited into brutal serfdom in the United States”.) The Miami Herald and L.A. Times also published editorials on the matter.

The California paper said,

Not content to leave office as the most unpopular president in recent history, Bush is cementing his legacy of hardheaded autocracy by pushing through a record number of last-minute and particularly noxious changes in federal regulations.

…the Department of Labor weakened the nation’s already flawed agricultural guest worker program. The new H-2A visa rules, which take effect in January, revise the way wages are calculated and will lower them substantially. In California, farmworker advocates say, the current $9.72 hourly wage would drop by 18%.

The new rules also reduce requirements for growers to prove they have made a good-faith effort to recruit U.S. workers and limit how much they have to reimburse workers for their trips home. This is precisely what opponents of immigration reform feared: policies that disadvantage citizens and encourage the easy exploitation of migrants.

The Herald said, “This revision will hurt those who can least afford any cuts in pay or erosion of job protections. The changes in hiring rules are particularly egregious because the greatest fear of domestic farmworkers is being displaced by foreign guest workers who are less familiar with their rights and more likely to remain quiet when those rights are abused for fear of being deported.”

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.