Apple farmers, pro-immigration groups push Congress to overhaul migrant worker program
On a cool September morning at Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner, Omar Worrell carefully unloads a sack of freshly picked Honeycrisp apples into a big plastic container on the back of a trailer.
"We have to do it very gently," he said, positioning himself over the container, "or we mash up the product."
Worrell is one of 44 Jamaican workers employed at the orchard during the fall harvest season. He said this is his ninth year working for the Ricker family business. Others have been coming back even longer.
"We've had some of these guys that for 40 years, 30 years, they keep coming back," said Harry Ricker, who runs the orchard, which has been in his family since 1803.
And he said the business has relied on migrant workers since the end of WWII. These days, they come through the H-2A visa program, which allows agricultural employers to hire temporary foreign workers if the positions can't be filled locally.
Ricker said these harvesters are critical to his orchard's operation. But he said the visa program is cumbersome.
"We have to have our paperwork in and done 11 weeks before we need help. But we don't know what our crop is going to be then," he said.
Ricker, who is president of the New England Apple Council, said he fields complaints from other growers about workers not showing up in time for the harvest, as their applications crawl through multiple government agencies in the US and Jamaica.
Ricker and other growers are calling for the Senate to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would expand the H-2A visa program beyond seasonal labor, streamline the application process, and establish a pathway to citizenship for long term H-2A workers. It would also create 3-year visas, reducing the logistical hurdles for workers and employers.
"It’s gonna solve a bunch of those problems which would be wonderful if it’ll pass," he said.
But some national labor groups are firmly opposed to the measure.
"Farmworkers deserve better, and we’re not going to settle for this," said Sonia Singh, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, an umbrella organization of labor groups.
Singh said the pathway to citizenship laid out in the bill is too narrow and demanding, and for some workers it could take between 4 and ten years to be able to apply for a Green Card.
Singh also objected to linking the citizenship pathway to an expansion of the H-2A visa program.
"There are so many concerns with how it ties workers to one employer and that that, once again, just really restricts the ability of workers to organize," she said.
At the same time, the American Farm Bureau Federation is criticizing the bill from the other direction. The group that represents farmers and ranchers objects to a provision that would allow H-2A workers to sue their employers for labor law violations.
But one Maine group focused on attracting and retaining immigrant workers said the Farm Workforce Modernization Act strikes a reasonable balance.
"When you read the bill, you can tell, you can tell that it's a compromise, and neither side got all of what they wanted," said Beth Stickney, with the Maine Business Immigration Coalition.
Stickney said while the bill isn’t perfect, it does include some key reforms, such as expanding existing farmworker protections to include H-2A workers for the first time, and adding regulations aimed at preventing labor recruiters from defrauding H-2A applicants.
"The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, at least, takes the first steps that have been made in a very, very long time to try to improve the H-2A program," she said.
At Ricker Hill Orchards, the crew of Jamaican workers moved steadily down a row of apple trees, filling bucket after bucket with mottled red and yellow fruit.
While clipping stems, a worker named Fabian Morgan said, if given the opportunity, he would seek permanent status in the US.
"If it’s something on the table, well yes," he said. "Because over here you have more opportunity."
But even if the Farm Workforce Modernization Act passes the Senate, Morgan could still have a long wait ahead of him. He said this is his first season in the US, and the current language of the bill says seasonal H-2A workers would only be able to petition for a Green Card after working in the program for 10 years.