Guest worker programs, of course, have a long history in the US. There was one during World War I and another, known as the bracero (strong arm) program, from World War II until 1964. The latter, critics say, led to massive immigration, both documented and undocumented.
Currently, the Department of Labor oversees a program created in 1986, dispensing H-2A visas for farm workers and H-2B visas for those in other industries. Government officials and analysts alike say the former is a bureaucratic morass and is little used by employers. On Feb. 6, the Labor Department proposed changes – the first in 20 years – to make the H-2A program more efficient. In a statement announcing the changes, the department acknowledged that "only a little more than 75,000 workers participate in the H-2A program, while there are an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 illegal immigrant workers on America's farms."
Changes include a procedure to more fairly calculate wages for foreign workers and ways to cut red tape, making it easier and swifter to hire foreign workers, particularly at harvest time. To protect domestic workers, the proposed changes increase the time employers would be required to recruit American workers before resorting to hiring foreign labor.
"The governor is glad [Secretary] Chao is considering changes," says Dennis Burke, chief of staff for Governor Napolitano, but is "not enamored" of a process that did not consult the states.
Arizona is home to a huge agricultural center at Yuma, where 80 to 90 percent of lettuce consumed in the US in the winter is grown. After meeting with farm workers and growers there, Napolitano wrote to Chao two days before the Labor Department's proposed changes were released. In her letter, she identified problems that "defeat the current H-2A program's stated purpose" and offered to lead an effort among border states to help revise the program.