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The Farm Worker Shortage, Immigration and a Probable Solution

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

There is finally some potential good news on the immigration front. One of the most egregious problems of President George W. Bush's tenure in office has been his disinclination to act effectively to halt or at least greatly reduce the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. Last week President Bush proposed important, if slight, changes to the visa program for farm workers which may help curb a significant portion of this country's illegal immigration.


The Bush Administration declared that it offered the proposal because Congress failed to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. The proposal would allow the Administration to address a shortage of legal farm workers. The Department of Labor (DOL) estimates that about 75,000 foreign workers participated in the H-2A visa program last year, while somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 undocumented laborers worked illegally on American farms. I suspect the numbers for the latter group are much higher than those DOL cites.

The proposed changes include a system for calculating how foreign workers are paid and centralizing the application process under the Federal Government. The issue of wages has been central to the immigration debate because illegal laborers often are paid below-market wages, thereby undercutting American workers. The current wage rules are intended to assure that such unfair wage rates do not exist, but the wage scales do not accurately reflect market wages by occupation, skill level and geographic location. Under the change proposed by the Bush Administration, the new system would use data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Survey, which is used to calculate required minimum wages for other visa programs administered by DOL.


The new rules would require employers to file applications with DOL, thereby eliminating the involvement of state agencies. The changes also would increase the number of days from 45 to 75 that a farmer is required to spend recruiting American workers for jobs before filling them with foreigners.

The changes do not require Congressional action and can take effect after a 45-day public comment period, according to THE WASHINGTON POST. Of course, many so-called immigration advocates are unhappy with the proposals, believing they will unfairly disadvantage those who live among us illegally. This is nonsense. In the first place, the proposals are so modest that their affect may be unnoticeable. Second, many of these advocates willingly subvert American authority and sovereignty for their own ideological purposes.

These changes address the problem of a highly visible but numerically limited sector of illegal immigrants. It is unclear whether centralizing visa applications with DOL will produce any change. I, for one, am skeptical, knowing how inefficient the Federal bureaucracy is. That said, all visas should be run through the Federal Government, not through individual states, because immigration belongs to the jurisdiction of Congress and the Executive Branch. If real results are to be expected the new wage rule is most likely to produce them. By requiring farmers to pay laborers market wages, it is possible that more Americans will be interested in agricultural work and the demand for illegal immigrants will decrease. Just a generation ago most agricultural workers were American citizens, and it is not so difficult to imagine this being the case again.


DOL and Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao are to be commended for proposing these changes. There is no shame in a nation enforcing its borders and monitoring those who come to work here. On the contrary, that is one of the primary duties of a government in any civil society.

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