This is a guest column from Pam Lewison, agriculture policy research director in the Tri-Cities office of the Washington Policy Center. Learn more at www.washingtonpolicy.org.
As the debate over illegal immigration roars on, our state’s farmers and ranchers are using a successful federal program to provide legal work opportunities for migrants. But some Washington lawmakers want to weaken the program with additional fees that will make it harder for legal migrant workers to find work in our state.
Both sides of the employment equation need the H-2A program. Farmers and ranchers need it to find workers who help provide labor when the agricultural community needs it most. Migrant workers need the program to provide legal means of earning a living when they might otherwise not be able to.
For years the federal H-2A visa program has been quietly providing work opportunities for thousands of migrant workers in Washington and around the country. In 2018 the H-2A visa program provided 24,658 migrant workers with the legal status necessary to provide a crucial service to our state’s farmers, ranchers and citizens.
The popular program ensures that migrant workers not only receive pay well beyond minimum wage, but access to housing, transportation and health care. The employer pays for all the costs of the H-2A program, including transportation for migrant workers from and to their home countries.
Now, some legislators in Olympia are pushing SB 5438, a bill designed to make this successful jobs program potentially cost-prohibitive for farmers and ranchers to use. Proponents say the increased number of migrant workers being invited to come to Washington has increased the cost to administer the program. They are pushing potential additional fees to offset those costs in the next biennium.
Farmers and ranchers are already stretched from spending so much money for water, taxes and caring for crops. Adding new bureaucracy and fees will only make more it difficult to hire the labor they need. This is careless policymaking.
The state receives reimbursement from the federal government to administer the H-2A program locally. If there is a need for additional funds, those funds should come from the federal stipend, not the dwindling bank accounts of Washington’s farmers and ranchers.
By proposing to levy additional fees on employers who rely on the program to fill the labor gap of approximately 30,000 workers in our state, the legislation will adversely affect the most vulnerable people involved in this discussion: migrant workers.
What SB 5438 really does is close our doors to some of the world’s most at-risk people. By supporting a bill that makes it harder to find legal employment in Washington, proponents are saying “no” to every migrant worker struggling to provide for his or her family.
These migrant families are able to work and live openly, without the fear of exploitation and deportation associated with being undocumented. They are contributing their skills and talents not only to their employers but to broader society as well.
The H-2A program is not welfare. It is a proven policy providing legal means for migrant families to earn a living, along with the respect and dignity that comes from being able to stand on one’s own and be part of a community. Migrant workers are not looking for a handout. Migrant workers are not even looking for a hand up — they just want a shot at earning a brighter future.
The H-2A temporary visa program, and the prospect for a better life it provides, is the embodiment of the American Dream. SB 5438 targets these vulnerable workers and would extinguish the hopes of migrant families before they even have a chance to try to improve their circumstances. Legislators should think twice before they support a bill that would harm farmers and migrant workers.