WASHINGTON - Meatpackers could hire employees through an agricultural guest worker program for the first time under a visa program proposed by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee chairman on Friday.
Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who oversees the legal code, said he would examine the immigration system issue by issue "to ensure we get immigration reform right." The Senate is working on a comprehensive reform bill that includes a separate path to citizenship for undocumented farm workers.
The agricultural guest worker program proposed by Goodlatte would be a replacement for the H-2A program, which critics say is slow and overly bureaucratic. The new program would allow up to 500,000 workers a year to enter the country for jobs with an initial span of three years. It does not offer a permanent legal status for illegal immigrants.
A Goodlatte aide said the question of "how to bring the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows" would be addressed separately.
The United Farm Workers union said Goodlatte's plan would slash wages and benefits for workers and deny the opportunity of legal status.
In a statement, Goodlatte said his plan "is good for those seeking a better life for their families by providing opportunities to earn a living while temporarily working in agricultural jobs U.S. citizens are not willing to do."
Food processors said the new guest worker program would help assure a stable workforce in rural America.
The meat industry has moved its processing plants into rural areas since the 1990s and drawn foreign-born, and especially Hispanic workers, to rural communities. In some agricultural counties, such as Imperial County, California, Clark County, Idaho, and Seward County, Kansas, foreign-born residents account for more than one-quarter of the population.
Dairy and livestock farms, who need workers year-round, would benefit from longer-term visas for guest workers, who now are limited to seasonal work.
Up to 60 percent of the estimated 2 million hired farm workers are undocumented. The H-2A guest worker programs provides about 70,000 additional workers a year.
Food processors called for longer-term visas for lower-skilled workers as part of immigration reform early this year.
"We are manufacturers, wanting a stable and permanent workforce that can help sustain the rural communities where we do business," said Mike Brown, speaking for a coalition of meat, poultry and egg producers and processors at a House hearing on Feb 26.
Goodlatte proposed an H-2C guest worker program that would allow a visa of up to three years for year-round jobs on the farm or in processing plants, including packing plants, before workers would be required to leave the country. The visas could be renewed for up to 18 months at a time followed by a return home. To ensure workers return home, 10 percent of their wages would be paid through the U.S. embassy in their home country.