WASHINGTON, June 14, 2017 - President Trump has been in office for nearly five months, and farmers are still waiting for his administration to take steps to address the labor shortage that many producers say continues to plague the sector. A recent press release from the Labor Department that promises to crack down on abuses of worker visa programs has only raised concerns of some in agriculture.

The June 6 release, headlined “US Secretary of Labor protects Americans, directs agencies to aggressively confront visa program fraud and abuse,” announces a series of steps that Labor Secretary Alex Acosta has ordered. Among them: The Wage and Hour Division is directed “to use all its tools” to enforce labor protections provided by visa programs.

The release goes on to cite its recent enforcement against an Arizona farming operation accused of keeping H-2A workers in “illegal and sub-standard” housing. In citing the case, the release says that “work has already begun on promoting the hiring of Americans and safeguarding working conditions.”

To Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, the release implies that there is “widespread abuse in the guestworker programs, including H-2A” but he says, “Those kinds of abuses are few and far between.”

Gasperini said he also is concerned that Acosta, because of his long background in government, will be hesitant to make significant changes in the department’s operations or in H-2A to make it easier for famers to use. Secretaries who have been part of the bureaucracy themselves “tend to not make big changes in the agencies they take over, and we’d like to see some changes in the Department of Labor. We’d like for them to have more of a sense of urgency.”

Richard Mahrle, a lawyer for G Farms, the Arizona operation named in the release, said the Labor Department investigation began May 5, so it didn’t predate the administration. He said the company quickly addressed the problems. “In our view, there was no need to file a lawsuit, too.”

Other farm groups tell Agri-Pulse they’ve seen little changes in labor enforcement since Trump took office. “We have not been alerted of any workplace raids being conducted on our members' operations,” said Jason Resnick, general counsel and vice president of the Western Growers Association.

There have been media reports of increased enforcement actions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently on California’s Central Coast, but they appear targeted at violent criminals and gang members rather than farmworkers, he said.

He said that “vigorous enforcement against flagrant violations is necessary to preserve the integrity of the H-2A program. However, such DOL actions should not detract from the continued need to streamline the H-2A application process for the vast majority of good actors” who use the program.

Craig Regelbrugge, former co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, said the Labor Department has been more actively enforcing regulations in H-2A and H-2B, the visa program for non-agricultural workers, for several years. “It’s been intense, and that continues,” he said.