U.S. has no shortage of agricultural labor, GAO says Draft report undercuts bid to loosen immigration law

December 28, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The General Accounting Office has thrown water on a legislative effort, pushed by the nation's agricultural employers, to allow entry of more foreign farm workers by concluding in a new report that there is "no national agricultural labor shortage at this time."

Several farm industry associations are pressing to expand the number of temporary work visas for the so-called guest workers, arguing that some regions face labor shortages, which are bound to increase as immigration officials step up efforts to keep out, and send back, illegal aliens.

Farm worker advocates are fighting the proposed legislation, asserting that increasing the number of such guest workers will undercut the wages of field laborers nationwide and weaken efforts to unionize them.

Congress asked the GAO to study whether there was a farm labor shortage after Republican lawmakers asserted that the current law requires farmers to surmount too many bureaucratic hurdles to win permission to import foreign workers and introduced legislation to liberalize the guest-worker program.

In a draft of the GAO report made available to the New York Times by an opponent of the proposed legislation, the agency essentially backed the assertions of the United Farm Workers Union and other farm worker advocates who insisted there is no national labor shortage.

"A sudden widespread farm labor shortage requiring the importation of large numbers of foreign workers is unlikely to occur in the near future," the draft report said. It acknowledged that localized shortages might exist for specific crops or geographical areas.

Rejecting another argument made by farmers and ranchers, the report added that enforcement efforts by the Immigration and Naturalization Service were not expected "to significantly reduce the aggregate supply of farm workers."

Farmers and ranchers fear that the new immigration restrictions might cut them off from a large part of their labor supply.

The GAO's final report is scheduled to be made public Wednesday. Agency officials said they might revise the 108-page draft before issuing the final report.

Under the current farm guest-worker program, known as H-2A, farm employers brought in 15,000 foreign workers last year, a small portion of the estimated labor force of 2 million farm workers, about 40 percent of whom are in the country illegally.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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