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GAO Testimony on H-2A Agricultural Guestworker Program

Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 98070656 (posted Jul. 6, 1998)"

[Editor's Note: This document is only available in PDF format. Below is the summary as contained in the document.]

United States General Accounting Office

GAO Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate

Wednesday, June 24, 1998


Changes Could Improve Services to Employers and Better Protect Workers

Statement of Carlotta C. Joyner, Director
Education and Employment Issues
Health, Education, and Human Services Division

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

We are pleased to be here today to discuss the ability of the H-2A agricultural guestworker program to meet the needs of the agricultural industry both today and in the event of sudden and widespread farm labor shortages. The H-2A program provides a way for U.S. agricultural employers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers into the United States to perform seasonal agricultural work on a temporary basis when domestic workers are unavailable. During fiscal year 1996, agricultural employers used the H-2A program to bring in about 15,000 workers, less than 1 percent of the U.S. agricultural field workforce. During fiscal year 1997, the number of workers brought into the country under the program increased to almost 21,000, just over 1 percent of the total farm labor workforce.

In congressional deliberations on the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, concerns surfaced about whether the act’s increased constraints on the entry of foreign workers into the country would result in a major, widespread shortage of farm labor to meet the needs of agriculture. As a result, the Act required that GAO review the program.

Today, I would like to address these concerns by discussing (1) the likelihood of a widespread agricultural labor shortage and its impact on the need for nonimmigrant guestworkers and (2) the H-2A program’s ability to meet the needs of agricultural employers while protecting domestic and foreign agricultural workers, both at present and if a significant number of nonimmigrant guestworkers is needed in the future. My statement is based primarily on our December 1997 report on this topic.1 To obtain information for this report, we interviewed federal and state agency officials, agricultural employers and representatives of agricultural associations, H-2A and non-H-2A farmworkers and farm labor advocates throughout the country. We also collected and analyzed data from numerous sources including the Department of Labor, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), state employment services, and grower associations. In addition, we provided an opportunity for the Departments of Labor, State, Justice and Agriculture to comment on the report. In summary, a sudden widespread farm labor shortage requiring the importation of large numbers of foreign workers is unlikely to occur in the near future. There appears to be no national agricultural labor shortage now, but localized labor shortages may exist for specific crops or geographical areas. Although many farmworkers - an estimated 600,000 - are not legally authorized to work in the United States, INS does not expect its enforcement activities to significantly reduce the aggregate supply of farmworkers. INS expects limited impact from its enforcement activities because of the prevalence of fraudulently documented farmworkers and INS’ competing enforcement priorities. In fiscal year 1996, less than 5 percent of the 4,600 INS worksite enforcement efforts were directed at agricultural workplaces. INS conducts enforcement efforts largely in response to complaints, and it receives few complaints about agricultural employers. INS officials in both field and headquarters positions stated unanimously that operational impediments prevented the agency from significantly reducing the number of unauthorized farmworkers. The prevalence of unauthorized and fraudulently documented farmworkers does, however, leave individual growers vulnerable to sudden labor shortages if INS does target its enforcement efforts on their establishments.

Although few agricultural employers seek workers through the H-2A program, those that do are generally successful in obtaining foreign agricultural workers on both a regular and an emergency basis. During fiscal year 1996 and the first 9 months of fiscal year 1997, Labor approved 99 percent of all H-2A applications. However, both employers and Labor officials have difficulty meeting time frames specified by law and regulation. And because Labor does not collect key program management information, it is unable to determine the extent and cause of missed timeframes. In addition, the multiple agencies and levels of government implementing the program may result in confusion for both employers and workers.

While INS enforcement efforts are unlikely to create a significant increase in demand for H-2A workers, we have recommended changes in program operations that could improve the ability of growers to obtain workers when needed - whether or not a nationwide labor shortage exists - and better protect the wages and working conditions of both domestic and foreign workers. These include reducing both the time required to process applications and the period of time the worker must be employed to qualify for a wage guarantee.