In spring 2017, a small group of farmers – including National Council of Agricultural Employers’ board members – traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with then freshly minted U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at the White House. One of the important topics of conversation discussed that day, in the first few of the new Trump Administration, was the need for reform of the H-2A agricultural guest worker visa program. The farmers were asked by the Secretary and other members of the administration whether they had any suggestions for revisions to the program, and it just so happened they did.
NCAE’s H-2A Committee, which holds weekly telephone calls with users of the program, attorneys, agents and specialists, had been planning for this opportunity for quite some time. The committee had gathered input as well as legal advice and had developed a document for just such an opportunity. The document highlighted a lengthy list of concerns users of the program had experienced – but that wasn’t all. Somewhat unique to petitions for grievance provided to the government regarding bureaucratic programs, the NCAE document provided proposed solutions to some.
The NCAE document was provided to the new Administration with thanks delivered on behalf of the White House.
This began an internal process within the administration as interested parties tried to determine how best to use this thoughtful information. Debate was had amongst different senior level officials as to how the recommendations provided by NCAE could successfully be incorporated into the Trump administration’s policy priorities and initiatives. It was not an easy task and needed to be struck between competing points of view. Committed champions and antagonists debated the reforms NCAE’s H-2A Committee had proposed and finally, following months of deliberation, the champions prevailed.
Over a year later, May 24, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was joined by Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to announce the administration’s recognition that America’s national security is inextricably linked to America’s food security. The administration had identified correctly that evolving the H-2A agricultural worker visa is imperative to that security. The secretaries’ joint announcement was the first step in opening a regulatory process to reform the H-2A visa program.
Immediately following this announcement from the agency heads, NCAE made its own. NCAE stated its commitment, with grassroots input from NCAE members, to working with the secretaries and their agencies to modernize the H-2A visa program rules. We further stated our desire to enhance the program as a source of legal and verified labor for agriculture.
The Board of Directors recognizes that this is a real opportunity for the members of NCAE to shape the future structure of this critical visa program through the regulatory process. NCAE staff has already been accumulating, developing and compiling evidence to introduce during the regulatory effort and has reached out to our members for more.
At the same time, the NCAE Board understands clearly that not all ills of the program can be cured administratively. NCAE and our legal counsel believe several challenges inherent within the H-2A visa program can only be addressed legislatively. The board has instructed staff to be opportunistic with Congressional initiatives where we can engage our many like-minded and collaborative coalition allies to pass solutions to these challenges into law.
Grassroots is the backbone of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. The vision and preparation of our H-2A Committee meeting every week and hashing out details of the agricultural visa program served as the impetus for advancing this critical issue into the new administration. It will be this grassroots committee’s preparation, experience and knowledge that will guide the regulatory process to a fruitful conclusion.
Remember, Aeschylus said, “From a small seed a mighty trunk may grow.”
And finally, just a reminder to those who have not yet saved the date for NCAE’s Annual Ag Labor Forum in Las Vegas Nov. 28-30 to mark those dates and plan to attend, because this issue and so much more will be discussed among attendees. This is a must-attend event for agricultural employers. Members and nonmembers are welcome.
I look forward to seeing you there and meeting you because your future, and your business, are too valuable to gamble away!