ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's agriculture commissioner traveled to Washington on Thursday and urged members of Congress to reform a federal agricultural guest worker program to make it easier for farmers to use.
Commissioner Gary Black told a House subcommittee that Georgia farmers are struggling to find workers, and the current guest worker program is too cumbersome to make it viable. Black, a Republican, said he was encouraged to see interest on the issue from federal lawmakers from both parties.
"This is an issue where we sit in a stadium and the opposing sides have been screaming at each other for a long time, but there are not many people on the field playing," Black said by phone from Washington after his testimony. "I think it's time to come down out of the grandstands and let's all work together to try to get a 21st-century guest worker program that works for all of agriculture."
Black said that he doesn't have a specific proposal to improve the program, but that it's a matter of getting ideas on the table and getting people to start talking about improving the program.
"The seeds have to germinate first before they start growing," he said.
He suggested that the federal government contract with the states to administer the guest worker program. The federal government would set the parameters for the program and then would train state workers and do audits, much as it does for other responsibilities, like food inspection, he said. He also said it makes sense to move administration of the program from the U.S. Department of Labor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Similarly, Georgia state senators on Thursday passed a resolution to urge Congress to make changes to the federal program that are in line with those that Black pushed in Washington.
Black would not support any solution that would not include amnesty or a path to citizenship for people who are already in the country illegally, he said. He applauded legislation already filed in Congress that includes changes to the federal agricultural guest worker program.
Some opponents of those proposals say they're not the right approach. Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, who also testified at Thursday's hearing, said guest worker programs treat farmworkers as commodities, not as people.
"Instead, Congress should adopt a compromise that includes an earned legalization program for the undocumented workers on our farms and ranches," he said in a statement after testifying. "Such a compromise on immigration policy that will ensure a productive agricultural sector, treat farmworkers humanely and stay true to our democratic traditions."
Black was earlier invited to Washington in October to address a Senate subcommittee on similar issues. He credits state crackdowns on illegal immigration, including one in Georgia, for that chance, saying that members of Congress realize the states are fed up and starting to take things into their own hands.
Farmers in Georgia have complained that Georgia's law cracking down on illegal immigration has scared away Hispanic migrant workers since it passed last year, but Black said last month it wasn't clear whether any of the reported shortages were a direct result of the law. Labor issues have long plagued farmers, he said Thursday, mentioning that he brought farmers to Congress 15 years ago to testify about problems with the guest worker program.
In the meantime, a budget proposal from Georgia state representatives, would give the agriculture department $75,000 to help with the problem. Black said he would use that money to hire someone to help farmers navigate the guest worker program and to gather data about problems farmers face.