Executive Order on Immigration May Address Farmworkers

President Trump may issue an Executive Order related to immigration and labor issues that could have significant effects on the nation’s farmworkers and their employers in agriculture.  Vox circulated a leaked draft of an “Executive Order on Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs.”  If signed, it could result in major changes in the H-2A agricultural guestworker program, but those changes are not specified.  Farmworker Justice seeks improvements in the wages, working conditions, and enforcement under the H-2A program to protect U.S. and foreign workers.

The leaked draft Executive Order calls on the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Labor and State to engage in studies and identify new policies, as needed, regarding temporary foreign worker visa programs, often referred to as guestworker programs. The draft would also require the Secretary of Homeland Security in consultation with the Secretaries of State and Labor to propose “a regulation (or make changes to policy or operations, as appropriate) to restore the integrity of employment-based nonimmigrant worker programs and better protect U.S. and foreign workers affected by those programs.”  Despite this call to protect workers, the order raises troubling questions.:  It would order DHS within 90 days of the order to “submit to the President a list of options for ensuring the efficient processing of petitions for the H-2A nonimmigrant agricultural visa program, while maintaining programmatic integrity.”  Efficient processing of the H-2A program is important but not at the expense of workers; this language is typically used by agribusiness to refer to their interest in  stripping away worker protections and DOL oversight. Although the draft is couched in terms of protecting workers, there is cause for concern. Historically, Republican Administrations have sought to lower wages and remove labor protections for both U.S. and foreign workers under the H-2A program at the behest of agricultural employers.  President Trump promised to cut 75% of all federal regulations. Moreover, he has an interest in facilitating employer access to guestworkers, creating a tension with pro-US worker rhetoric.

The H-2A program has grown recently to 165,000 approved jobs and is expected to continue to grow.  In 2016, over 95% of applications were certified and in a timely manner.  The H-2A program  allows agricultural employers to hire foreign workers on temporary work visas if they recruit inside the United States with certain minimum wages and working conditions and cannot attract sufficient U.S. workers. The Trump vineyard in Virginia has used H-2A guestworkers.  

Farmworker Justice will press the Administration to better protect U.S. and foreign workers under the H-2A program. Farmworkers’ wages and working conditions need to be improved, not worsened.  In addition, there are widespread violations of the rights of both U.S. and foreign workers under the H-2A program that need to be addressed.

This draft Executive Order does not address the reality that a majority of the 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S. – the experienced workers on our farms and ranches -- are undocumented immigrants. Instead, the President demonizes undocumented workers and promises mass deportations.  Undocumented farmworkers and their family members should be offered the opportunity for immigration status and a path to citizenship.