Rep. Lamar Smith's New Agriculture Bill Would Restrict Legal Workers' Rights

September 09, 2011 10:02 am ET — Salvatore Colleluori

When it comes to immigration, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has one goal: to get rid of all undocumented immigrants. Smith's new legislation H.R. 2847, the "American Specialty Agriculture Act," seeks to get rid of undocumented workers in the agriculture industry and replace them with legal workers by changing the H-2A visa program — which is currently used as a legal means of bringing foreign workers into the US — into a brand new program called H-2C, which will purportedly "eliminate the problems plaguing the H-2A program."

While some have considered this a softening of Smith's immigration stance, it is in fact a more direct attack on legal migrant workers. Smith is also seeking passage of a mandatory E-Verify bill, which he believes will drive out all undocumented workers, and he needs the support of farmers. In order to placate farmers who see their profits dwindling in the wake of state anti-immigrant bills, Smith is setting up a way to keep farmworkers' wages low without the use of undocumented immigrants. To achieve this, Smith wants to strip many of the safeguards for migrant workers currently in the H-2A program and leave the program as a shell that strictly benefits farmers and nobody else.

The current H-2A program allows migrant workers to become eligible for federally funded legal services in the case of a labor dispute. Smith's proposal will push migrant workers to have arbitration and mediation clauses in their contracts while not allowing federally funded attorneys to sue on behalf of a worker until after mediation has occurred. In addition, at no time can federally funded attorneys provide legal representation for workers no longer in the country. However, by only allowing workers to be in the country for 10 months, many of the workers' claims would be halted once they left the United States.

Smith's bill would also eliminate three key provisions of the H-2A program — mandatory Adverse Effect Wage for workers, guaranteed free housing, and transportation reimbursement — and reduce the "three-quarters guarantee," a provision that entitles workers to at least 75 percent of the total hours promised in their contract, to 50 percent.  

All this would allow farmers to continue taking advantage of cheap foreign labor while reducing safeguards for legal workers. In turn, this direct attack on legal workers will create a new class of cheap, unrepresented laborers that Robert A. Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworkers Justice Program, likened to indentured servitude when describing the new H-2C workers in a hearing on the bill.

Smith's bill falls in line with the Republican orthodoxy; in order to achieve the greater policy goal, in this case the elimination of undocumented immigrants, it doesn't matter we fail to uphold the basic rights of legal workers in our country.