Making it Legal

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The Bush Administration and Congress are focusing on the disparity between immigration policy as written in Washington and the immigration reality as it exists in the U.S. The end result might mean good news for equestrian operations.

President Bush and several members of Congress have proposed reforms to the nation’s out-of-date and out-of-touch immigration system. Horse farms and other agriculture facilities, which historically have been victims of the Catch 22 that makes the industry overwhelmingly dependent on workers not authorized to be in the U.S., need these changes. Most important, all the legislative proposals address the deeper, shadowy issues of poverty and the exploitation of low-income workers.

The horse industry—suffering from a shortage of farm and training center workers, grooms, hot walkers and similar entry-level employees—has been forced to rely on alien workers. It’s no secret that legitimate employers are unable to hire a legal and consistent workforce. Rather, the nature of the work force and labor market, combined with current laws, creates this no-win environment that requires prospective employers to accept documentation that appears valid, but in reality, may not be, or, worse, to hire known illegal aliens.

Last year, the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003 (Ag JOBS) was introduced by Representatives Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and Howard Berman (D-Calif). AgJOBS is a product of years of negotiations among farm employer representatives, worker advocates, members of Congress of both parties, and others. Its lengthy list of supporters includes the American Horse Council, agricultural employers and workers, and religious, financial, political and public interest institutions nationwide.

The legislation allows experienced agricultural workers lacking authorized immigration status to achieve permanent legal resident status, following a background check, through a process called earned adjustment. Workers who can demonstrate that they have worked 100 or more days in a 12 consecutive month period during the 18-month period ending on August 31, 2003 can apply for temporary resident status. The worker may then apply for permanent resident status after fulfilling a three- to six-year future work requirement of at least 100 days per year. The farm worker may be employed in non-agricultural occupations, as long as the agricultural work requirements are met.

AgJOBS also modifies the existing H-2A temporary and seasonal foreign agricultural worker program, making it more streamlined, practical and secure. Employers desiring to employ seasonal workers (10 months or less) will file an application and a job offer with the Secretary of Labor. If no obvious deficiencies exist, the Secretary must approve the application. H-2A foreign workers are admitted for the duration of the initial job, not to exceed 10 months and may extend their stay if recruited for additional seasonal jobs to a maximum continuous stay of three years. H-2A foreign workers are authorized to be employed only in the job opportunity and by the employer for which they were admitted and must depart the United States after three years.

“It’s no secret that legitimate employers are unable to hire a legal. . .workforce.”

A briefing paper prepared by the American Horse Council takes issue with the 10-month limit. It notes that the H-2A program does not fully satisfy the needs of the horse industry, as workers at breeding or training farms are needed for longer periods.

President Bush announced his proposals to fix the immigration system on January 7, 2004. The centerpiece of the President’s proposals is a new temporary worker program that would match foreign workers with American employers when no American can be found to fill the jobs. Additionally, the millions of undocumented men and women currently employed in the U.S. could get legal status as temporary workers. Temporary workers must have a job or a job offer. Their legal status would last three years and will be renewable; but it will have an end—temporary workers would have to return permanently to their home countries after their period of work in the U.S. has expired.

All of these proposals appear to have merit and acknowledge the reality of a flawed immigration policy that has encouraged an economy that relies on workers without legal status. The next step in the legislative process may take place early this year with hearings on Capitol Hill and the opportunity for public comment.