June 9, 2013 -- A massive tractor slowly traverses a bare field as workers, sitting on top of it, furiously separate tiny cabbage plants and drop them into the soil. It is the first week of the cabbage planting season at Hansen Farms in Stanley, New York, one of the largest cabbage farms in the state. To plant and harvest the 20,000 tons of cabbage they expect to grow this year, the Hansens have hired 24 seasonal workers in addition to their seven full-time employees. Without this extra labor force, Eric Hansen of Hansen Farms says his family would no longer be able to grow cabbage.
"There are no local people, or enough of them to ever do this work," said Hansen. "Without the migrant labor we become strictly a grain farm. A lot of this production has already shifted to Mexico because of a shortage of labor."
As immigration reform moves slowly through Congress, the visa program that Hansen uses to hire seasonal workers, called H-2A, could be reworked or rewritten. As is, the proposed Senate bill replaces it entirely. The future of that provision is, of course, uncertain, but the numbers illustrate the program's dysfunction: of the estimated one million jobs needed to run America's farms, over half are filled by undocumented workers, according to government data. But only 65,000 H-2A visas were issued last year.
The visas are in short supply but also underused, partially because farmers often struggle with the cost and bureaucracy associated with the program. Eric Hansen says his H-2A workers have shown up late three out of the last five years because of paperwork delays, which then pushes back the short window in which to plant cabbage. But the program isn't necessarily good for the workers either, say activists, especially because recruiters in Mexico can exploit them for these sought-after visas.
"In the process there is often a recruiter involved who charges high fees to get the visa. This causes worker indebtedness and in some cases even worker trafficking," said Sarah Rempel from El Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant advocacy group. "In the process there is often a recruiter involved who charges high fees to get the visa. This causes worker indebtedness and in some cases even worker trafficking. Once the workers get to the US, the working conditions are very difficult. They're paid very low wages. The average farm worker makes between 15 and 20,000 per year, well below the poverty line."
One issue that both farmers and workers struggle with is the non-portability of the H2-A visa. Once an employer hires a worker using the program, they are tied to each other. Workers can't work elsewhere and farmers can't let them go if they no longer need them.
According to Hansen, reforming the guest worker program affects not only farmers and their employees but also America's food supply. "With a few tweaks, if we call if the H-2A or something else, it can work. If we want fresh vegetables to stay in this country long term, it has got to work."
But the future of immigration reform is unknown. The Senate bill faces tough opposition in both houses and likely months of debate.
"We're cautiously optimistic about the bill, about the provisions that are in the Senate legislation," said Rempel. "However this is just the beginning stages of this legislation and there's a lot that's going to happen, so really, we don't know what the final product will be."