Former USDA senior advisor says latest plan to reform H-2A excludes voices from agricultural employers – Agweek

Agweek Podcast: Demand and difficulties to H-2A reform

Thu Jun 16 16:57:40 EDT 2022

Agweek reporter Noah Fish is joined by Kristi Boswell, counsel in the legislative and public policy group at the firm Alston & Bird, and former senior advisor to US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Boswell gives an overview of the H-2A program, the work she’s done to help streamline it, and how H-2A reform has been a priority issue for decades. She also weighs in on the USDA’s recent announcement about partnering with the United Farm Workers of America to develop a $65 million pilot program to support H-2A workforce and employers.

The next crack at reforming the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program will involve the United Farm Workers of America.

The US Department of Agriculture announced recently that in coordination with other federal agencies, it will develop a pilot program using up to $65 million to provide support for agricultural employers participating in the H-2A program. Funding will be used to implement “robust health and safety standards” for H-2A workers employed through the program, according to the USDA.

The UFW is named as a direct partner with the USDA on the pilot program, and it will consult on the program’s development, according to the USDA.

The H-2A program is defined by the US Department of Labor as a way for agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the US to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.

Kristi Boswell, counsel in the legislative and public policy group at the firm Alston & Bird, said that agricultural employers have long advocated for H-2A reforms that make the program “less bureaucratic and more efficient.”

“H-2A and labor reform has been a priority issue for agricultural employers, farmers and ranchers for decades,” said Boswell. “But the last time real immigration reform was sent to the president’s desk was in 1986.”

She got involved in ag labor and immigration work in 2012 with the American Farm Bureau Federation, representing its membership on H-2A and broader ag labor reforms. Boswell went on to serve as a senior adviser to US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, focusing primarily on ag labor.

“I was also fortunate to do six months at the White House directly working on those issues as well,” said Boswell.

She still represents agricultural trade associations, ag businesses and farmers on H-2A reforms, regulatory and congressional legislative efforts, along with other issues that affect their businesses.

The H-2A program was created with “really good intent,” said Boswell, to supply the workforce when there’s not enough US workers available. She said the process begins with the Department of Labor and the state workforce agency, then through a petition process with the Department of Homeland Security.

H-2A participation has seen “exponential growth” in the last decade. Boswell said that’s not a testament to the workability of the program, but rather the result of the growing instability in ag labor throughout rural America. The need for H-2A workers is no longer a coastal issue, she said, and commodity crop and livestock producers in the Midwest also require additional workforce.

“In the 10 years I’ve worked on this program, it has grown from about 70,000 to over 300,000 workers,” said Boswell. “So there’s a great need for a workability of this program and making sure that it’s streamlined and efficient, Making sure it works for employers who continue to need it, but also to make sure it works for workers as well.”

“Carrot to decrease illegal migration”

One aspect of the program is reducing irregular migration through the expansion of legal pathways.

Boswell said the USDA’s latest proposal to reform the program is using H-2A admission as a “carrot to decrease illegal migration” from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

In her previous role, Boswell gave ministers from Guatemala tours of farms in the US, to make sure they understood what kind of agricultural employers were needed and some of the challenges with using the program.

“I think the effort is a really positive one,” she said of the USDA’s pilot program.

Boswell believes the USDA’s union-led effort to reform the H-2A program — without consulting farmer organizations prior to the announcement — raises questions about whether it will be the most effective way forward.

“I think it scratches some heads on where the agricultural employers’ voice is going to be in this,” she said of the USDA-UFW partnership. “What engagement will the department have directly with employers, or will all of those messages be funneled through the union? I think there’s still outstanding questions about that.”

She’s also wearable of a union-led plan with the USDA being used as an effort to increase union membership, rather than addressing true reforms. UFW has declined to give state membership numbers, but the most recent calculation from the US Department of Labor has around 6,000 active and retired UFW members.

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