By Kevin Walker
LANSING, Mich. – Farm groups are trying to fend off significant fee increases for H-2A visas, a program that farmers use to hire temporary farm workers who would otherwise be ineligible to work in the United States.
In January, the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) put out a notice in the Federal Register listing dozens of immigration related fee increases, some but not all of which are employment related. Farmers are upset about the proposed new fees for H-2A worker applications. Currently, the application fee for “named workers” is $460; under the new schedule the fee would rise to $1,090. The fee for “unnamed workers” is now $460; under the new schedule it would rise to $530. The fees are not for each worker, rather, a fee is applied to each application, which can apply to no more than 25 workers, explained John Kran of the Michigan Farm Bureau.
In early May the Michigan congressional delegation sent a joint letter to the head of the DHS, Alejandro Mayorkas, complaining about the new fees. “Michigan agriculture is a significant driver of the state’s economy and our farmers that rely on H-2A are already faced with a 12.8 percent wage rate increase since last year,” the letter states. “DHS is also proposing a new $600 Asylum Program Fee on certain work visa petitions that will impact not just agriculture but a wide array of industries from tourism to nonprofits. Although the severity and scope of this $600 fee is alarming on its own, the collected funds would go towards unrelated asylum program needs. While we understand the need for DHS to occasionally review visa fees, we believe such a sharp increase in fees would compound the impact of the increased costs the agriculture economy is facing right now. We are concerned this will make running an agricultural operation more difficult, limit job opportunities for Americans, raise prices for consumers and harm our nation’s food security.”
Kran said the Michigan Farm Bureau is happy that there is broad support from the Michigan congressional delegation that this is a “misguided rule.” The new fee schedule is still being reviewed, with the public comment period having ended in March. According to Kran, the DHS might make changes to the fee schedule based on public comments, or it might not. The new fees are not being charged at this time. Kran said the H-2A issue is not an immigration matter, because H-2A workers are not seeking citizenship, but merely temporary employment, after which time they will go home. An H-2A worker can remain on a work site for no longer than 10 months.
Kran added that an employer must check an applicant’s documents to make sure they are eligible to work in the United States. However, he acknowledged that applicants sometimes use bogus documents. Unless the employer uses the federal electronic database known as E-Verify, the process of checking an applicant’s documents against federal records may take weeks or even months. By that time, an employee with bogus documents may have already left the work site. Any employer may use E-Verify to see if an applicant’s documents are legitimate and get instant results, however, they are not required to do so under federal law. Only a handful of states require all employers to use E-Verify, including Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina; Georgia requires all employers with more than 10 employees to use it and Louisiana requires employers to either use the system or retain paper records of an employee’s work authorization. Michigan requires some public sector contractors and subcontractors to use E-Verify.
“Farmers do the best they can to hire legal workers,” Kran said. “Increasingly, farmers are relying on guest workers, because they can’t find enough workers locally to do the jobs.” The minimum wage for H-2A guest workers is currently $17.34 an hour. Kran said that farm workers can sometimes make more than that if they are experienced. He also noted that farm employers who use H-2A workers provide housing and transportation for the guest workers, with an H-2A employee only responsible for paying for their own food. Imports of fruits and vegetables from south of the U.S. border have increased in recent years, putting more pressure on farmers. Last year, legislation that would have streamlined the H-2A program and made it easier for farmers to use guest workers, passed the House, but did not make it through the Senate. Over 200 farm groups signed on to a letter in December asking Senate leaders to help pass the Affordable and Secure Food Act, which was sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet(D-Co.).