Conservatism at its worst

Conservatism at its worst

The Bush administration’s proposed farmworker rules 

One of the great schisms in modern American (and North Carolina) conservatism is the divide between pro-business wing and the xenophobic talk radio crowd – particularly around the issue of immigration and immigrant workers.

Out of one side of its mouth, the right espouses an unflagging devotion to the genius of the “free” market. When it comes to immigration, this voice purports to support open borders and minimal restraints on employers to hire cheap foreign labor.

From the other side of the conservative mouth, of course, comes a very different narrative. According to this voice, immigrants are an enormous threat to our society and endanger our well-being and way of life. This voice favors mass deportations, construction of an American equivalent of the Iron Curtain and even constitutional amendments to stop and reverse the immigrant flow.      

In Washington, this deep division within the conservative movement has produced a true “worst of all worlds” situation – namely a series of Bush administration policies that seek to placate both sides of the conservative movement without doing anything to really address the underlying issues.

Not surprisingly, the most frequent losers in this politically motivated tap dance are the immigrants themselves. On the one hand they are welcomed to the U.S. by self-interested employers who maintain a nod and a wink relationship with federal officials. On the other, they must endure the twin miseries of often horrific working conditions and the constant threat of surprise law enforcement raids and rapid deportation.

The agriculture dilemma

A classic example of this counter-productive policy schizophrenia is evident in a series of proposed rules recently put forth by the Bush administration regarding the treatment of a class of foreign guest workers known as “H-2A” workers.

H-2A is a federal program first initiated in the 1980’s. The idea behind it is to provide agricultural employers with a method to legally import and employ temporary foreign workers when there are insufficient domestic workers available. Under the H-2A program, agricultural employers are permitted to legally import and employ foreign workers, provided the Department of Labor officials certifies that:

“(A) There are not sufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, and qualified, and who will be available at the time and place needed to perform the labor or services involved in the petition; and

(B) The employment of the alien in such labor or services will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of workers in the United States similarly employed.”

In other words, H-2A is supposed to be part of the solution to illegal immigration. For decades, agribusiness has claimed that the reason it has been forced to hire undocumented workers is because there are not enough American workers willing to fill the available jobs. H-2A was supposed to provide a solution to this problem by, in effect, saying to big growers, “Okay guys, we’ll let the market work. You can have all the foreign workers you want as long as you show us that you can’t find any Americans first.”

The problem, of course, is that there are plenty of American workers. They just don’t want to work for what agricultural employers want to pay. The work is too hard and too dangerous and too sporadic.

In most other industries in the “free market,” such a situation would result in competition for workers that would produce higher pay and better working conditions. But in the agricultural world, employers have a safety valve – the ready availability of hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers.

Why play by the rules and go to the trouble of making a job offer to American workers – especially ones who might actually demand fair treatment or, God forbid, organize, when you can have a much lower paid and disposable workforce that’s afraid to even make a peep lest they find themselves arrested and deported?

The result of this contradiction is that the H-2A program has never become the kind of solution that it was designed – at least in theory – to be. Today, there are approximately 75,000 H-2A workers in the U.S. and probably several hundred thousand who are undocumented. Notably, however, North Carolina has more such workers than any other state.

A cynical “solution”

Recently, in an apparent attempt to jumpstart the H-2A program and respond to the anti-immigration conservatives, the Bush administration proposed a rewrite of the program. Unfortunately, the proposals do nothing to address the underlying issues and ignore a much better solution that was painfully negotiated by agribusiness and worker representatives called AgJOBS. Instead, the proposed changes simply loosen the standards by which employers must abide in their hiring and treatment of H-2A workers.

Here’s how advocates at the Washington-based group, Farmworker Justice, characterized the administration’s proposed changes:

“These administrative policies…would drastically lower protections and minimum housing standards for the farmworkers who harvest our nation's crops. The changes also would allow employers to hire foreign workers without having to first recruit U.S. workers effectively and without meaningful government oversight. The proposal should be withdrawn.

‘Farmworkers face the most devastating policy changes since the end of the abusive Bracero program in the early 1960s’ said Bruce Goldstein, Executive Director of Farmworker Justice. ‘The White House and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao are heartlessly slashing wage rates and removing labor protections for United States agricultural workers. The administration is encouraging agricultural employers to hire cheap foreign labor thus lowering the wages for all U.S. workers,’ he continued. ‘Employers should offer wage rates based on America's labor standards, not those of developing nations.’"

In effect, the Bush administration’s proposed solution to the huge influx of undocumented immigrants is not to enforce decent working conditions in agriculture (or anywhere else in the workplace), but to make it possible for agribusiness to treat legally imported workers the same way it treats undocumented workers. Tired of getting beaten up by its anti-immigrant, talk radio base and unwilling to cross its conservative business wing, the administration has latched upon the ultimate cynical solution: legal importation of temporary workers at wages and conditions just above Third World levels. 

Searching for real solutions

The dilemma confronting agriculture in today’s “free trade gone wild” world is this: Unlike a factory, you can’t easily send a tomato field to China or Indonesia. Unable to export jobs to countries with exploitive wages, agricultural employers try to do the next most immediately profitable thing: they bring the exploited workers here. By proposing lax new H-2A rules, the Bush administration is attempting to legitimize and legalize this practice on a mass scale. In so doing, it hopes to assuage – at least temporarily – both wings of its divided political movement.

Unfortunately, the problems with such an approach are huge and numerous – for immigrants, for all U.S. workers, and for the future of the country. If carried to fruition, the proposed H-2A rules are likely to amount to the public policy equivalent of a bad shotgun marriage: a toxic and combustible combination that’s bad for everyone affected. Let’s hope that the public outcry is sufficient to get the administration to back off of its ill-conceived proposal and move to engage in real dialogue with workers and worker advocates.

And let’s hope that, soon, Americans of all political philosophies search out the better angels of their natures and come to understand that our immigration challenges cannot be solved by surrendering to a combination of base human instincts like greed and nativism – especially when they’re combined.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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