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Monday, October 17, 2011 - 10:47am

Immigrant Visa Fixes Stalled

Two bills to overhaul a federal foreign guest worker program are under consideration by the U.S. Congress. Washington is also considering a law mandating the E-Verify employment check system. Following labor shortages during the spring harvest, Georgia’s agriculture industry is keeping a close eye on these bills.

Many Georgia farmers are looking to Congress to solve labor shortages. Some growers say a new state law targeting illegal workers has left them scrambling for labor.

To fill the shortage, farmers want easier access to federal H2A guest worker visas.

But Charles Hall, with the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, says a U.S. House bill that would have combined E-Verify with a new guest worker program failed. He says that means reforms to the guest worker program could get lost in the debate.

“So now E-Verify can move on one track and a guest worker program will move on another track," he said in a phone interview. "And we could have E-Verify pass and a guest worker program not pass.”

Many of Georgia’s large peach farmers use the H2A visa program. But many small farms don’t, due to the time and cost involved.

Hall says farmers may face labor shortages again next year without an H2A overhaul. And that's a daunting prospect. A study has found labor shortages cost fruit and vegetable farms at least $70 million in crop losses this spring. The University of Georgia study surveyed farmers, who said they had 40 percent fewer workers than they needed this year.

Hall says the bills ignore undocumented laborers already working on farms.

“Both programs require that the workers come out of Mexico or a foreign country and come through the U.S. Consulate to receive a work visa to be able to come into the country,” he said.

Federal law prevents the current undocumented workers from returning to their countries to apply for the visa. Hall says the migrant workers have built up skills that are not easily replaced.