As federal agencies, labor recruiters and employer agents gathered in Dallas at the end of October to discuss the H-2 visa programs, a renowned labor expert offered her thoughts on the demand for temporary non-immigrant labor and outlined the ways employers can hire reliable workers in a difficult economy.
Libby Whitley, president of MasLabor, is actively involved in legislative and regulatory matters affecting both the H-2A agricultural and H-2B non-agricultural seasonal labor programs. She was the only employers’ agent invited by federal officials to speak at the second annual H-2 forum held Oct. 28-29, 2008.
Most of Whitley’s career has been devoted to labor issues, from work in Congress and the White House, to handling legislative matters for the American Farm Bureau and running the national Council of Agricultural Employers. A no-nonsense businesswoman, Whitley sees overreaching government intrusion and confusing, often contradictory regulations, as the greatest obstacles separating U.S. employers from the seasonal laborers they desperately need to survive.
In a far-ranging conversation aboard an airplane to the forum in Texas, Whitley shared her thoughts on the state of H-2 and what MasLabor is doing to give employers peace of mind.
Q: What is the purpose of the forum and why did you attend?
A: There are infrequent opportunities to meet with regulators to talk about these H-2A and H-2B programs. Fifteen years ago, the Department of Labor (Doc) and the Immigration and Naturalization Service were eager to meet with us. Now the DOL has basically shut its doors. We want to reestablish a rapport by having some face time with regulators. We might even point out some ideas for improving the process, making it work better for employers.
A: It ends up being a validation of what we do. We find that a competent, experienced agent can provide expertise where it wouldn’t otherwise exist. These are complicated programs, with bureaucrats telling employers what they can and cannot do. An employer who uses the H-2 programs should have the benefit of an expert who understands these programs from the employer’s perspective. If not used correctly, the H-2A program can implicate an entire workforce for benefits the employer was unprepared to offer.
Q: That’s where MasLabor comes in?
A: We support the employer through the duration of the employment period. We consider ourselves to be a working partner who understands an employer’s complicated and time-sensitive labor needs. Then we solve those needs.
Q: How will the economy affect the H-2 visa program?
A: That’s a good question. The agricultural industry is less susceptible to economic ups and downs facing other U.S. industries. The question is whether the rising unemployment rate will impact the H-2A program if greater numbers of American workers seek agricultural employment. We believe the vast majority of farmers will continue to use the H-2A program for two reasons: American workers traditionally have not been interested in hard farm labor, and the H-2A program is the only legal alternative for non-immigrant seasonal labor.
Q: And the foreign workers benefit?
A: Absolutely. The H-2 program is one of the few areas where immigration law actually functions to the benefit of everyone involved. For H2 workers, there’s none of the danger and uncertainty of an illegal border crossing. Most H2 workers arrive at their employers’ locations on a chartered, air-conditioned bus. They are serious breadwinners who choose to live away from their families during their U.S. employers’ busy season in order to provide their families with a better quality of life. For Mexican workers, seven to nine dollars an hour is up to 10 times what could be earned in most jobs at home. H2 wages can transform lives.
The H2 program also works other ways, especially compared to the effects of lax border security, illegal immigration and uncertain worker legality. H2 visa programs are the only legal way of matching selected foreign workers with the seasonal needs of U.S. businesses. State and federal agencies verify that the employer pays fair wages and that U.S. workers are not available to fill the jobs. Foreign workers are then admitted on temporary visas to work only for that employer and then return home. It typically takes at least 80 days to work through the complex, multi-stage H-2A process; more for H-2B. We try to encourage the employers we work with to let us know their labor needs at least 120 days before they need workers. That way, we can do our best work on their behalf.
Q: How does MasLabor figure into this equation?
A: We manage the application process start to finish, representing the U.S. employer. The progress from the application through ground transportation to the job site is monitored continuously, and our employers are kept up-to-date so they know when their workers are going to arrive.
Worldwide, our team works with the most competent and ethical recruiters in this industry. We are in regular contact with the U.S. State Department consulates in every country where we recruit workers, so that we and everyone we work with are current on the latest H2 visa issuance procedures. We help employers find workers from any country in the world. Our dedicated recruiting resources are based in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Eastern Europe and South Africa. So whatever an employer’s specific needs might be, we can come up with the best solution.
Q: Critics of the H-2 programs say non-immigrant laborers just want a means of getting into the United States to take American jobs.
A: I think the first issue that people should understand is H-2 is available only after an employer shows federal labor officials that there are not enough American workers to do these jobs. We are constantly hearing stories from employers about U.S. workers who apply for a job, but never show up or work only a few days and quit when they find out what life on a farm or in other seasonal employment is like.
As for the idea that Mexican laborers are just looking for a way into the United States, the numbers tell a different story. There is a common misconception that “everyone” wants to be a U.S. citizen. One reason that illegal immigration is such a problem is that it separates families. Illegals can’t afford to pay coyotes (human smugglers) thousands of dollars to get smuggled into the U.S. to subsequently return home for a visit. They get trapped in the United States. They often start second families here and lose the family they left behind. The pathologies of illegal immigration are tragic. Entire villages in Mexico and Central America have been impoverished by the permanent departure of most of their working-age men.
The H2 program eliminates these pathologies. They provide workers solid employment opportunities, allowing them to save and send substantial money home, and permit the workers to safely and legally come to the United States and then return home at the end of the season. They can do this for as many years as they wish.
While there are differences between cultures, our experience shows that a good employer can expect an H2 worker to work for an average of seven or eight years in the program, returning year after year. After that time, they have earned enough money to take their next step in their home country, from buying a farm or a store to starting another kind of business. Now that’s a reliable laborer. And quite frankly, that’s also the American way.