(Dec. 19, WEB EXCLUSIVE) A final rule designed to streamline the H-2A process was published by the Department of Homeland Security on Dec. 18, but agriculture lobbyists said the changes to the guest worker program won’t replace the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

One labor union charged the final rule could depress farm wages.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, Washington, D.C.

Gasperini said he attended an informational outreach meeting about the final rule in Atlanta Dec. 12. Another Homeland Security meeting on the subject was Dec. 15 in Denver.

The new rules — effective Jan. 17 — allows growers to assert that there’s a shortage of workers instead of providing proof that local work forces are lacking. Under the previous H-2A regulations, growers had to advertise or otherwise show that a search for employees came up empty. There are new record-keeping requirements for growers, however.

The final rule doesn’t mean comprehensive immigration reform isn’t needed, a lobbyist said.

“Their intent is a step in the right direction for the limited number of organizations that can effectively utilize the H-2A program,” said Kam Quarles, vice president of government relations and legislative affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, in an e-mail.

Cathy Enright, vice president of government affairs in Western Growers’ Washington, D.C., office, said the group appreciated efforts to streamline the H-2A process.

“H-2A alone is not the solution, and immigration reform is still needed.” she said.

UFW fears wage drop

The United Farm Workers said in a news release the reforms will make it easier for growers to cut the pay of domestic farmworkers and hire foreign laborers instead of U.S. citizens. The reform program could result in hourly farm wages in California that would be 18% lower than the current $9.72 hourly wage, the release said.

The proposed rule received 163 comments through the end of the comment period in April. About 115 were from growers, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

According to a summary of the rule published in the Federal Register, the final rule revises limitations on agricultural workers’ length of stay. That includes extending the time a worker can remain in the U.S. after his or her employment has ended and shortening the time period that an agricultural worker whose H–2A nonimmigrant status has expired must wait before he or she is eligible to obtain that status again.

This rule also provides for temporary employment authorization to agricultural workers seeking an extension of their H-2A nonimmigrant status through a different U.S. employer, provided that the employer is a registered user in good standing with the E-Verify employment eligibility verification program.

The final rule also precludes the imposition of fees by employers or recruiters on prospective beneficiaries.