Farmworker Justice Immigration Update, 12/12/16

Presidential Transition Appointments

DHS Secretary
General John Kelly has been nominated by President-Elect Trump to be the Secretary of Homeland Security, a position that could have a far-reaching impact on the nation’s immigration policy. Kelly, who retired from the military earlier this year, led the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in much of Central and South America. Though he worked extensively on cross-border issues in this role, much is still unknown about his views on specific immigration policies and how his military experience will translate to leadership in a civilian agency. Whomever Kelly eventually chooses to direct the different sub-agencies within DHS will likely play a key role in shaping the agency’s immigration policies and enforcement actions.

DOL Secretary
President-Elect Trump has named fast-food executive Andy Puzder as his nominee for Labor Secretary. Puzder favors repealing workplace regulations and has a record of pro-business and anti-worker values. Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurant Holdings, the parent company of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food franchises, which are currently the subjects of various ongoing DOL investigations. Puzder has also been a vocal opponent of raising the minimum wage and providing overtime pay, and has advocated automation as a way of avoiding financial and legal obligations to workers. He has also expressed support for guestworker programs, appearing to prefer temporary work visas over the opportunity for workers to obtain immigration status. FJ is currently collaborating with other organizations across the country to call for a thorough investigation of Puzder’s past labor practices and possible conflicts of interests. We are committed to ensuring that the position of Labor Secretary is held by someone whose first priority is protecting the rights of workers.

Labor Transition Team
Another controversial member of President-Elect Trump’s DOL transition team is Veronica Birkenstock, the president of a recruiting agency that specializes in connecting employers with temporary guestworkers from Mexico and other countries. Guestworker programs are rife with abuse of both U.S. workers and foreign workers on temporary work visas. Though Ms. Birkenstock’s firm specializes in the use of H-2B visas, the use of recruiting agencies has proved problematic in the H-2A context as well.

UPDATE: Curiously, Birkenstock’s name was removed from the transition team website, as reported by a group that referred to her as a recruiter for “cheap temporary foreign workers.”

H-2A Visa Use May Increase amidst Immigration Uncertainty
Many employers are concerned that a crackdown on illegal immigration by the Trump administration could affect their ability to retain their workforces. Farmers have been increasingly turning to the H-2A guest worker program for their temporary labor needs, with the number of applications for H-2A workers growing substantially during the last decade. In the South, for example, demand for farm labor continues to grow, with a majority of these workers entering through the H-2A program. In Florida, approximately half of the state’s strawberries are harvested by H-2A workers, while Pennsylvania fruit growers are increasingly turning to the H-2A program as well. This trend of increasing use of the H-2A program will likely continue amidst the current uncertainty about Trump’s immigration policies.
If use of the program does increase, there will be enhanced pressure on the already limited resources available for investigation and enforcement by government agencies. Unlike the H-2B program, the H-2A program does not have a cap on the number of visas that can be issued per year, which means there are no limits to the program’s potential increase.
Employers will also likely continue to advocate for a scaling back of the requirements and protections present in the program. A recent Civil Eats article quoted FJ President Bruce Goldstein on his concern that a Trump administration could change the current guest worker program in a way that erodes worker rights. Specifically, he stated that the Trump Department of Labor adopt policies “slashing wage rates and reducing government oversight.” FJ will continue to ensure that any discussion of guest worker programs includes farmworker voices and will oppose anti-worker changes.

What Will Happen to “Dreamers” Deferred?
On the campaign trail, President-Elect Trump pledged to revoke President Obama’s 2012 deferred action directive, DACA, which gave undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children the opportunity to study and work legally in the country. There are currently more than 740,000 “Dreamers”, with about 7,000 additional applications for the program each month. Since his election, Trump has been facing mounting pressure from Democrats and some Republicans to keep the program in place. There are also concerns that if the program is ended, the personal information submitted by Dreamers may be used to initiate deportation proceedings against them. There is widespread fear in immigrant communities about threat of deportations.

However, in a sign that he may be re-considering his pledge, Trump recently told a Time magazine interviewer that he’s “going to work something out” for Dreamers. He added: “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here; they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

New Legislation Introduced. On Friday, Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin introduced bi-partisan legislation that would extend protection from deportation as well as continued access to work permits for Dreamers for three years in the event the Trump administration revokes DACA. The legislation would also expand the number of Dreamers affected and protect personal information from being used to target their parents for deportation. The bill is named the “Bar Removal of Immigrants who Dream and Grow the Economy” or BRIDGE Act.

We are hopeful that President-Elect Trump will consider the devastating effects that revoking this program will have on both immigrant communities and the broader communities in which these young people live and work. The bi-partisan efforts underway to protect the program are a testament to its significance.

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