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H-2A Program, Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, IRCA, Simpson-Rodino Act, Special agricultural workers, SAWs, Replenishment agricultural workers, RAWs


Agriculture Law | Immigration Law | Labor and Employment Law


The enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 ("IRCA"), popularly known as the Simpson-Rodino Act, was in large part spurred by Congressional desire to exercise more effective control over the influx of foreign farm workers in this country. This is not a new issue; the U.S. has admitted temporary foreign agricultural workers since 1917, and their entry has always been the subject of heated debate. Between 1942 and 1964 the "bracero" program allowed Mexicans to work temporarily in U.S. agriculture, but this program resulted in massive civil rights and labor violations and depressed wages in the Southwest. Since 1964, the U.S. has continued to admit foreign agricultural workers under the "H-2" program of the Immigration and Nationality Act to perform temporary labor where a shortage of domestic workers exists.

Knowledgeable estimates of the number of such aliens working in U.S. agriculture ranged from 300,000 to 1.2 million. Despite the magnitude of effect aliens have on the labor supply, disputes between growers and organized labor organizations contributed to the failure of immigration legislation in 1984 and its near derailment in 1986. In support of allowing the entry of foreign agricultural workers into the U.S., growers have contended that many American workers do not want to work in seasonal agriculture or to live in rural areas. If employer sanctions were to be instituted under the proposed legislation, growers wanted some assurance that they lawfully could obtain sufficient numbers of workers. Organized labor and farm worker rights organizations disputed the growers' assertions by pointing to high unemployment rates among domestic farm workers. These organizations charged that growers were seeking to preserve a cheap labor force that had few legal rights.

The Simpson-Rodino Act attempts to reconcile these competing claims by providing for the treatment of farm workers in three ways. First, it revises the existing H-2 temporary worker program as it applies to agricultural workers. Second, the new law provides temporary resident status for aliens who can prove they worked ninety days in U.S. agriculture between May 1, 1985 and May 1, 1986. These "special agricultural workers" ("SAWs") later can become permanent residents. Third, the law allows additional "replenishment agricultural workers" ("RAWs") to enter the U.S. as temporary resident aliens between 1990 and 1993 if there is a shortage of farm workers at the time. These replenishment workers also may eventually become permanent resident aliens if they work at least ninety days in U.S. agriculture for three consecutive years.

This article analyzes each of the major provisions of IRCA that affect foreign farm workers. The article examines IRCA's language and implementing regulations; points out ambiguities, gaps and unanswered questions; and provides practical pointers for immigration practitioners.

Publication Citation

Published in: New York University Review of Law & Social Change, vol. 15, no. 2 (1986-1987).