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Thursday, November 17, 2011 - 10:56am

Bill Overhauls Immigrant Worker Program

Two Georgia Congressmen have proposed a bill to overhaul a federal foreign guest worker program that many farmers use. The bill comes following labor shortages during the spring harvest, and it’s designed to make the program easier to use.

The proposed bill would extend the guest workers’ visas to 12 months from ten, and would allow workers to renew them for another year.

Employers wouldn’t have to hire local workers if they already have foreign ones through the visa program. And they could screen for experience. Foreigner workers would also earn less, under the proposed bill.

Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, a co-sponsor with Representative Jack Kingston, says other pending federal legislation and a new Georgia law cracking down on immigrants make passage of his bill critical.

"Especially in light of the bill that was passed in the Georgia legislature, and the fact that Rep. Lamar Smith has got a national E-Verify bill, we wanted to make sure that our farmers, our dairymen, our cattlemen, had a viable, legal way to help with their workforce,” he said.

The state’s new immigration law will require many employers to check workers’ immigration status using the federal E-Verify database. Some Georgia farmers say it has scared away migrant workers.

While the workers could stay here longer, Westmoreland says the bill doesn't provide amnesty to illegal residents.

“This has nothing to do with amnesty,” the congressman said. “It has to do with making sure that the largest industry in our state, the agriculture industry, has people available to work, to harvest the crops, to plant them and that’s all this is about.”

The state’s large peach farmers use the H2A visa program. But many small farms don’t due to the cost and the regulations.

Agriculture officials say the bill would go a long way toward reducing the current program's bureaucratic red tape. And they say farmers may face labor shortages again next year without an H2A overhaul.

Charles Hall, with the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, says the proposed changes would especially help small farmers.

"It relieves a lot of the regulatory burden that the small farmers would have to deal with under the current H2A program," he said. "I really think this would make it a much more usable program than we currently have.”

Rep. Westmoreland said the bill will have to go through several committees before it can come for a vote in the House.

It's been a turbulent time for Georgia farmers who use foreign labor. A University of Georgia survey found that fruit and vegetable farms had at least $70 million in crop losses. Farmers surveyed said they had 40 percent fewer harvest workers than they needed.

Because there were fewer people working on Georgia farms, the survey estimated the total economic impact of spring crop losses could top $390 million, including lower receipts at local businesses such as grocery stores and gas stations.

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