“Let no good deed go unpunished.”

Whoever the cynic was who initially coined that now ubiquitous phrase could have been describing how state and federal agencies impose short-sighted restrictions on folks doing their best to abide by laws.

He could easily have been frustrated with immigration reform and a restriction imposed last October by the Texas Drivers License Division that prohibits foreign nationals from obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL) if they plan to be in the country less than a year. And the applicant must have at least six months left on his visa to qualify.

Those restrictions, on the surface, may not appear overly onerous. And the intent likely was to prevent immigrant labor from overstaying their visas with a license issued for five years. When the visa runs out, the CDL could provide the alien worker a valid identification document.

But the restriction also prevents employers who need seasonal labor from using the legal H-2A program to hire qualified workers to drive trucks, tractors and combines. It hits custom harvesters particularly hard.

Tony Rattei, who runs a custom harvest operation out of Seminole, Texas, has used H-2A for about 14 years and says the new provision will be devastating to his company and to the custom harvesting industry. It also affects cotton gins and other labor-intense operations.

Rattei says Texas employed some 2,000 H-2A workers last year. “That number will increase,” he says. “Nearly all custom harvest workers come through this program.”

Immigrant workers hired through H-2A run farm equipment for which they must have a CDL (even a pickup).

Seasonal harvest requires long hours and hard work. “It’s hard to find qualified employees,” Rattei says. “They have to be 23 years old to get a CDL. In Texas, we have to compete with the oil fields and we can’t pay as much as they do.”

The H-2A program provides an avenue to find good workers that are screened by the American Consulate. “We sometimes go into Mexico to recruit workers,” he says. “Language barrier is often an obstacle so we look for workers who understand some English.

“We’re trying to find legal labor, but (the state) has set up a roadblock.”

The program comes with employer obligations. Employers have to provide transportation from and back to the workers’ homes. They have to pay an average of $9 per hour (rates vary from state to state and range from $8.60 to $10). Employers also provide food and lodging.

Bringing in qualified workers is worth the extra expense, Rattei says. “It’s not a cheap program but we can’t do without it. H-2A workers harvest some 70 percent of the silage in Texas and about 50 percent of the grain. If we can’t get this labor we’ll face a hardship at fall grain harvest. And we’re likely to have a lot of grain.”

Most H-2A workers come from Mexico, Rattei says. But some come from other countries.

He says the driver’s license restriction creates potential for more illegal workers coming in. “That’s a bigger risk,” he says.

He hopes for legislative relief. The Texas Legislature is considering two bills (one in the House and one in the senate) that would amend the driver’s license restrictions. An early draft of one of those bills would require an applicant for a non-resident commercial driver’s license to possess a social security card issued in the applicant’s name; or a passport issued to the applicant from his resident country, along with a valid visa, each with an identification number and expiration date. The license fee would be $100 and would expire on the same date the applicant’s visa expires.

Rattei said custom harvesters recommend that a non-resident license, issued for the time of the worker’s visa, could be renewed if the worker returned home and came back the following year.

“By having the license expire when the visa does, they (non-resident workers) have an invalid driver’s license (when the visa expires),” he says.

Typically, CDLs expire after five years.

National estimates indicate more than 42,000 workers come into the United States annually through the H-2A program. Figures from the National Foundation for American Policy pegs H-2A numbers at 29,882 for 2003. That was down from 31,538 in 2002 and 31,523 in 2001.

The Foundation also states in a position paper that the bracero program that ended in 1964 provided a legal path of entry for Mexican farm workers and “significantly reduced illegal entry into the United States.”

That program had detractors and suffered from reports of abuse, but the Foundation points out that after it was eliminated illegal immigration began to increase.

Custom harvest operators, such as Rattei, along with other farm industry employers, say the H-2A program offers a legal option to bring in qualified workers.

Getting rid of needless roadblocks would allow the program to work, as it’s intended, he says.

email: rsmith@farmpress.com