CANTON - The two Republicans vying for the GOP nomination on June 26 disagree on whether to expand a visa program for year-round farm workers, which has been a key priority for several upstate representatives.
Matthew A. Doheny, an investment fund manager of Watertown, says that guest workers should be able to get visas so they can work legally on north country farms for several years. Kellie A. Greene, a recent graduate of seminary school, believes that current visa programs shouldn't be expanded.
The disagreement comes at a time when immigration policy in general is at the forefront of national political dialogue, though it's more in the context of courting the Latino vote than the context of employment at north country farms. President Obama announced last week that the U.S. would stop deporting illegal immigrants who were brought here as children and have served in the military or were college students, stoking debate with his Republican rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
What's not often discussed in the presidential debate, though, is the H2A visa program. Under the program, people from outside the U.S. are allowed to work on American farms on a seasonal basis. There are two problems with it, critics say: It doesn't work well for some farms, and it doesn't work at all for many others, particularly those in the north country.
Apple growers in Oswego County have been able to bring in Jamaicans for the seasonal work of picking their fruits, for example. But dairy farming is a year-round job; a cow's udder obeys no growing season. And the current H2A program makes workers go back to their home countries on a seasonal basis, making the program a mismatch for dairy farms, critics say.
Mr. Doheny said that workers should be allowed to stay for longer than one growing season.
“We need to have a program that understands that reality, that allows people to come in for years, not days or months,” Mr. Doheny said, “so that employers and employees have a legal status where they're a temporary worker, even if it's three years.”
The current H2A program is a tangled ball of red tape, critics charge. So when Mr. Doheny talks about a guest-worker visa program, he's careful to say that it's not about fixing H2A, but coming up with a new program in its entirety.
But Ms. Greene said she wouldn't push for the visa program to be expanded.
“I don't support expanding any of those programs at this particular juncture,” Ms. Greene said. “We don't have jobs for our own people, let alone being able to bring in seasonal workers or dairy farmers, which are not seasonal.”
Ms. Greene said that if the country is to help farmers, it should cut taxes and regulations — to be sure, cutting taxes and regulations is a position that she shares with Mr. Doheny and any contemporary conservative Republican.
But Mr. Doheny echoes the sentiment among some farm advocates who say that Americans won't take those jobs.
“Can the local market take care of your labor needs? For better or worse, whether you live in Cambridge in southern Washington County or right here in Ellisburg, the answer is no,” Mr. Doheny said. “We need to make sure the law and the legal system is catching up.”
Efforts to expand the H2A visa program, or something similar to it, have been stymied in the House by staunch opponents of so-called “amnesty,” or allowing those who broke the law by coming here illegally stay here, said Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh. Like Mr. Doheny, Mr. Owens is in favor of expanding a visa program to year-round workers.
“We'd be better off if we knew who these people were and where they were, we could issue them visas for a couple of years, and then return them to their home country,” Mr. Owens said, “but we're not doing the practical and pragmatic.”
The discussion about an expansion of the visa program has struggled to take hold, however. That's why he voted against the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors — or DREAM — Act. It would allow certain illegal immigrants who came here as children to stay here.
But he's not sure about the merits of that bill, either. And, like his possible Republican opponents on Nov. 6, he's wary of the president's decision to unilaterally impose part of that act.
“I have some real concerns about that,” Mr. Owens said. “I think it's something that Congress should have at least voted on. I think if they had put together a program that had the DREAM Act and H2A, it may well have stood a good chance of passing.”
Mr. Owens said he's hopeful but unsure that the national discussion about immigration policy will help generate discussion about the visa program.
“I've been working on this since I came to Congress,” Mr. Owens said. “It's been very difficult.”
The primary election between Mr. Doheny and Ms. Greene will take place on June 26. The general election between the victor and Mr. Owens is Nov. 6.