At the end of last week, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue held bilateral meetings with his Mexican counterparts, focusing on the benefits of the commercial relationship between both countries. As part of these talks, which took place in Mexico City, the subject of temporary foreign workers in the U.S. agricultural sector was addressed.
Comments by Secretary Perdue concerning foreign agricultural workers included the claim that, "Frankly we have a system now that's essentially unworkable for many farms." Additionally, during a joint press conference with his Mexican counterpart Secretary Jose Calzada Rovirosa, Secretary Perdue said the following:
Not only are they excellent day laborers and workers, they are honest people who want the opportunity to provide for their families, who want to enter and leave the United States freely to be able to do their jobs, but also visit their native countries and to visit their families. And we seek to give them a legal way that they can carry out these activities.
Meanwhile, the Mexican delegation expressed its hope to take an "integral" approach to the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), including immigration issues.
During a teleconference with U.S. media, Secretary Perdue said conversations were taking place among various federal agencies about reviving the Bracero program, the Mexican farmworker-importation scheme ended in 1964:
Wall Street Journal Dudley Althaus: Good morning Mr. Secretary, I was wondering if there was any discussion of the farm worker shortage in the United States and what can be done in context of the NAFTA renegotiation? Is the U.S. administration considering a revival of the Bracero Program as President Peña and President Trump mentioned at the G-20?
Secretary Sonny Perdue: Well I think that our presidents are working with their counterparts in Department of Homeland Security and [Department] of State, and others, the Department of Labor. That's really outside the purview of our Secretary of Agriculture. Although it did come up, among personally, among Secretary Calzada, as well as the press conference we just concluded here. And what I told them [is] that we were working on a program that could provide a legal guest worker program in the U.S., that would provide their citizens the opportunity to float freely, seasonally, temporarily, into the U.S. for the work and come back to visit their families in their homelands here. So while we don't have any details of that ... we are passing around some conversation among ourselves and hoping I have people assigned in USDA to provide some guidelines, because I think most of the farmers look to U.S. to help them translate their needs to Labor, DHS, and Secretary of State for the visas. So, we are hoping to do that, but that was not an area, I think, that would be involved in NAFTA renegotiations. (Empahsis added.)
Unlike his Mexican counterpart, Secretary Perdue does not think the issue of foreign agricultural workers will be part of NAFTA renegotiations.
The Bracero program was initiated in World War II as a means to bring workers from Mexico as the United States engaged in the war. (The claims of a labor shortage were untrue even then.) The program ended in 1964 after Congress chose not to renew it. The current farmworker-importation program, the H-2A visa, is numerically unlimited but has stronger protections than the Bracero program. The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs. One of these regulations includes proving that "there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to the temporary work."
In June, the U.S. Department of Labor promised to combat fraud in foreign worker programs, including the H-2A program. Moreover, Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta said the department would use resources to address problems of exploited foreign workers and the displacement of U.S. workers. (Earlier this month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced a "one-time" increase in H-2B nonimmigrant visas for FY 2017, which is for non-agricultural seasonal workers.)
Some argue that an increase in legal avenues for workers to enter the United States will in turn curb illegal immigration. However, history has shown that "temporary" programs last longer than anticipated, illegal migration accompanies the legal migration, and the non-immigrant workers settle in the United States instead of returning home.