LOS ANGELES — The Bush administration announced new rules on Thursday that it said would lessen the bureaucratic burden on employers seeking to hire foreign farm workers. Advocates for the workers, however, contended the changes would depress wages and working conditions.
The Labor Department released the changes in a document of more than 500 pages, the culmination of reviewing 11,000 comments since it proposed new regulations in February.
The changes apply to a guest worker program known as H-2A, after the visa that allows farmers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis for field jobs they cannot fill with Americans.
Most farmers ignore the program because of red tape and delays that could cost them precious harvesting time. In California, the 5,000 H-2A workers are a fraction of the peak agriculture work force of 450,000, according to the California Farm Bureau.
But, after Congress failed to revamp immigration laws and come up with a new guest worker program in 2007, the administration, seeking to attract more farmers to the program, moved forward with revisions not requiring Congressional approval.
The changes, the first major ones in 20 years, include eliminating duplication among state and federal agencies in processing applications, putting in place a new wage formula the department said would be fairer to workers, and increasing fines for willfully displacing United States workers with foreign ones.
An assistant secretary of labor, Leon R. Sequeira, said in an interview that while the changes would make the program “more predictable and timely, the program is still far from simple and easy to comply with.”
Growers agreed, and suggested the new rules would fall prey to litigation and perhaps reversals by the new administration.
“This is a program everybody acknowledges needs an overhaul,” said Craig J. Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, a trade group. “Even if regulatory reform were wildly successful and carried on to the next administration, it can’t even begin to solve the agricultural labor crisis. The bottom line is Congress is still on the hook.”
Farmer and worker groups have backed long-stalled legislation that would make more sweeping changes.
Anthony Coley, a spokesman for Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, a major proponent of that legislation, denounced the revisions and said the senator “feels strongly that they should be withdrawn.”
Worker advocates said the Bush administration was seeking to put its stamp on the guest worker program instead of more rationally waiting for the next president. The regulations will be published next Thursday in The Federal Register and would take effect on Jan. 18, two days before President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated.
Bruce Goldstein, executive director of Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group based in Washington, said of the changes, “The intent is a massive expansion of the guest worker program by enticing employers into a program with low wages and poor working conditions.”