The big election has come and gone, so maybe now the executive and legislative branches of our federal government can do some actual work. One can only hope.
There is plenty of work to be done. America still has a huge and growing infrastructure problem to be fixed, foreign policy damage to be repaired, and a smoking-hot economy that faces more than a few major threats.
One big need here on the Central Coast is for the President and Congress to coalesce on a comprehensive guest-worker policy. The H-2A program is problematic for local growers, in large part because of the housing requirements in the program and strong opposition in neighborhoods whose residents don’t want guest workers housed near them.
Here is the problem, as phrased by a local grower last week: “Unfortunately, there is no political will to solve these issues.”
The problem has been exacerbated by mid-term campaign rally cries to keep undocumented immigrants out of the country, when the plain truth is that local growers — and a long list of other businesses — rely on that labor force to get the job done.
Another fact is that immigrants make up about 25 percent of Santa Barbara County’s population, and more than 11,000 undocumented farmworkers are in local fields and on ranches at various times of the year.
A 2017 survey of California farms shows more than half the growers and ranchers say they simply do not have enough workers to get the tasks done.
So, who will do that work? That is a question most farmers and ranchers cannot answer. They can tell you those jobs absolutely will not be taken by American citizens.
Something else many of them will tell you is that there is one sure way to reduce the “crisis at the border,” as campaigning politicians referred to it during political rallies in recent weeks — revive the guest-worker visa program, allowing more immigrants into the country to help keep the agricultural sector of our nation’s economy healthy.
There are currently only the H-2A ag worker program, and the seasonal H-2B program, both of which are fundamentally flawed by bureaucracy and burdensome restrictions, and both of which most employers try to avoid using.
There was a time when the guest-worker visa program was a favorite of the Republican Party. When Ronald Reagan was a candidate for president in 1980, one of his campaign pledges was to make it possible for more immigrant workers to come to the United States by issuing work permits, which later turned into the guest-worker visa program.
Or as candidate Reagan said in 1980, offer work opportunities instead of “putting up a fence …”
Apparently, that philosophy has been erased by the far-right takeover of the GOP. Now, it’s keep all undocumented immigrants out, no matter what.
That hard line stance is not helping the ag industry, which desperately needs more workers. The current GOP argument is that illegal workers are taking jobs away from American citizens. Numerous studies prove that is simply not the case. In agriculture, if immigrants can’t take the jobs, the jobs generally go unfilled. Why would most citizens take on back-breaking field work, when there are more than 7 million job openings across the country, and a near-record low unemployment rate?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly half the farm workers in this country are undocumented immigrants. But a labor shortage persists.
The executive and legislative branches of government could fix this problem. The question is — will they do it?