Statement of Dr. James S. Holt
on behalf of the
National Council of Agricultural Employers
Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims
House Judiciary Committee
June 15, 2000
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee:
I appreciate the opportunity to testify on behalf of the National Council of Agricultural Employers on the need to reform the H-2A alien agricultural worker program
and H.R. 4548, the "Agricultural Opportunities Act".
The National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE) is a Washington, D.C. based national association representing growers and agricultural organizations on
agricultural labor and employment issues. NCAE’s membership includes agricultural employers in all fifty states who employ approximately 75 percent of the nation’s
hired farm labor. Its members are growers, farm cooperatives, packers, processors and agricultural associations. NCAE was actively involved in the legislative
process that resulted in the enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, and for the past five years has been actively advocating for
legislation to address the current shortage of qualified legal labor for U.S. agriculture and the problems faced by the illegal alien workers upon whom the U.S.
agricultural industry now heavily depends. NCAE’s representation of agricultural employers and its long history of involvement with national immigration policy for
farm workers and legal alien worker programs gives it the background and experience to provide meaningful comments and insights into the current U.S. farm labor
system, the problems with the current H-2A program, and how S. 1814 will affect agricultural employers and farm workers.
My name is James S. Holt. I am Senior Economist with the management labor law firm of McGuiness, Norris & Williams and the Employment Policy Foundation in
Washington D.C. I serve as a consultant on labor and immigration matters to the NCAE. I am an agricultural economist, and have spent my entire professional
career of more than 35 years dealing with labor, human resource and immigration issues, primarily with respect to agriculture. I served 16 years on the agricultural
economics faculty of The Pennsylvania State University, and for the past 20 years have been a consultant in Washington D.C. I serve as the technical consultant to
most of the current users of the H-2A program, and to employers and associations who are attempting to access the program. I was the principal H-2 technical
consultant to the H-2A employer community during congressional consideration of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and I have played a similar role
for the NCAE for the nearly 5 years that Congress has again been considering legislation to deal with the shortage of legal farm labor.
For reasons that have been discussed before this Subcommittee and your counterpart committee in the Senate for more than 5 years, the procedures under which
alien workers are brought into the United States and employed in seasonal agricultural jobs are desperately in need of reform. Rep. Pombo has been a leading voice
in the House of Representatives for trying to accomplish H-2A reform. The agricultural industry and, indeed, the Nation owes Rep. Pombo an enormous debt of
gratitude for his dedication, courage and leadership on this issue, which is so vital to the U.S. agricultural industry.
H.R. 4548 is another attempt to address the need for H-2A reform. It provides for a 3-year pilot of a reformed procedure for admission and employment of alien
agricultural workers. We believe the reforms of the H-2A program contained in the proposed H-2C program, which are very similar to H-2A reforms enacted with
broad bipartisan support in the Senate in the last Congress and which are included in legislation on which your Senate counterparts held a hearing last month, are
balanced and effective reforms. They will enable farmers access to needed foreign labor in a timely and efficient manner while protecting access of domestic farm
workers to U.S. agricultural jobs and protecting and improving the wages and working conditions of both domestic and foreign workers who work in U.S.
The current status of agricultural labor in the United States.
While the United States agricultural industry is overwhelmingly an industry of family farms and small businesses, it is also heavily dependent on hired labor. Labor is
an essential input in farming, and essentially all commercial farms rely to a greater or lesser degree on hiring labor to perform certain essential tasks. The 1997
Census of Agriculture reported more than 650 thousand farms hiring labor directly, and reported 3.4 million hires by farmers. More than 225 thousand farms also
hired contract labor. Total expenditures for hired and contract labor in 1997 were $17.8 billion. This was 12 percent of total farm production expenses, or $1 of
every $8 spent by farmers. Farmers spent more for hired labor in 1997 than they spent for seed, fertilizer, agricultural chemicals, petroleum products, interest or
property taxes. In fact, after purchases for livestock and feed, hired labor accounted for greater farm production expenses than any other category of expenses
reported in the Census of Agriculture. In the labor intensive fruit, vegetable and horticultural sectors, hired labor costs average 25 to 35 percent of total production
costs, and in some individual commodities the percentage is much higher.
Aliens have always been a significant source of agricultural labor in the United States. In particular, labor from Mexico has supported the development of irrigated
agriculture in the western states from the inception of the industry. As the U.S. economy has expanded, generating millions of new job opportunities, and as domestic
farm workers have been freed from the necessity to migrate by the extension of unemployment insurance to agricultural workers in 1976, and the federal government
has spent billions of dollars to settle domestic migratory farm workers out of the migrant stream and train them for permanent jobs in their home communities,
domestic farm workers have moved out of the hired agricultural work force, especially the migrant work force,. These domestic workers have been replaced by
alien workers, largely from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
As a result, the U.S. agricultural work force has become increasingly alien and increasingly undocumented. The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural
Worker Survey (NAWS) reported in its 1998-99 survey that 52 percent of seasonal agricultural workers working in the United States self-identified as not
authorized to work in the United States. This was an increase from 37 percent in the previous survey only 3 years earlier, and from only about 12 percent a decade
earlier. More than 70 percent of the new seasonal agricultural labor force entrants in the NAWS survey self identified as not authorized to work. Most experts agree
that the statistics based on self-identification in the NAWS survey are likely very conservative. Evidence based on INS enforcement actions and verification of Social
Security cards by the Social Security Administration often results in 60 to 80 percent or more of workers’ documents being determined to be invalid or not
pertaining to the person who presented them.
The combination of increased INS enforcement activity, the verification programs of the Social Security Administration, shortages of legal U.S. workers of
unprecedented proportions and an unworkable program for the legal admission of alien workers are having serious negative consequences on the agricultural industry
and the agricultural work force. Increased border enforcement, increased interior enforcement and increased SSA verification activity have led to reductions in labor
availability and destabilization of the agricultural work force. These trends will continue. The increase in border enforcement personnel authorized by IRRIRA will not
be complete until FY 2002. The SSA plans to continue lowering its threshold for rejection of employer tax returns due to name/number mismatches. These factors,
coupled with the extraordinarily high levels of nonagricultural employment, have resulted in increasing frequency of farm labor shortages and crop losses and
precipitated a problem which is rapidly reaching crisis proportions.
Some opponents of alien agricultural worker programs argue that reform of the H-2A program is not needed because employer sanctions cannot be effectively
enforced no matter what the government tries to do. The implication of this argument is that employers should endure the uncertainties and potential economic
catastrophe of losing a workforce, and workers should continue to endure the uncertainties of being chased from job to job on a moment’s notice. We find such
reasoning unacceptable. It is an argument for the status quo, which all agree is unacceptable. Furthermore, it is unacceptable to refuse to address one public policy
problem on the grounds that another accepted and enacted public policy will be ineffective. We must honestly face the issues that our policy of immigration control
and employer sanctions confronts us with. We believe that calls for a workable alien agricultural worker program.