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Bush administration makes last-minute changes in farmworker hiring

In a move that could have a profound impact in California, the Bush administration has changed the H-2A guest farmworker program.

The changes will make it easier for employers to use, with relaxed wage, housing and recruitment requirements, according to the administration, which has warned that Homeland Security will be cracking down on illegal immigrant workers.

The little-used federal H-2A program allows growers to import temporary workers for short periods. The Bush administration's controversial changes to the program, which were met with fierce protest by labor advocates and lukewarm employer reaction, are expected to be published Dec. 18 in the Federal Register and take effect in January after Barack Obama's inauguration.

In its final days, the administration "is making it easier for employers to bring in massive numbers of workers with fewer regulations and no oversight," said Bruce Goldstein, director of Farmworker Justice in Washington, D.C. He said advocates will explore going to court or Congress to reverse the changes.

Only a tiny fraction of farm laborers are H-2A workers in California, the nation's richest farm region. Industry estimates are that many, if not most, of a nearly 1 million-strong peak period workforce could be undocumented.

Western Growers Association President Tom Nassif called some advocates' concerns about the H-2A changes "overstated." But he didn't express strong enthusiasm for the reforms, either. He called the new rules "a temporary fix" and said he would continue to push in unison with Goldstein and the United Farm Workers for Obama and Congress to adopt a federal bill called AgJOBS, which would open a path for farmworkers to earned legal status if they continue to work in agriculture for three to five more years.

Since proposing H-2A changes in February, the administration has received thousands of objections and comments in response. The final rules were placed briefly on the Labor Department Web site at midnight Tuesday but then were removed.

Goldstein said the new rules will significantly relax requirements that employers must show they can't find domestic workers. Employers will be allowed to "attest" in writing that they are meeting requirements for hiring domestic workers.

A new method of calculating pay scales could drop the H-2A minimum $9.72 an hour now in California to minimum wage in many regions, Goldstein said. And employers now will have to pay far fewer worker travel expenses. For example, Mexican workers would have to pay their own way to the U.S. border.

The mandatory provision of free housing for H-2A workers will remain, but housing no longer will have to be inspected by state or federal officials ahead of time if an employer cites an "emergency" need to bring in workers.

Erik Nicholson, UFW director of guest worker affairs, said guest workers "could end up placing them in a box down by a river." He added: "What's gone unanswered by the Bush administration is what is going to happen to hundreds of thousands of undocumented farmworkers who will be displaced" if employers replace them with H-2A workers.

Goldstein predicted that an influx of H-2A workers will backfire, adding more people to the farm labor pool, driving down wages and increasing the possibility of more underground hiring.

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