* House bill allows up to 500,000 guest workers a year
* It requires workers to return home periodically
* Farmworkers union opposes the Goodlatte bill
Meatpackers could hire employees through an agricultural guest worker program for the first time under a visa program proposed by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee chairman on Friday.
Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who oversees the legal code, said he would examine the immigration system issue by issue "to ensure we get immigration reform right." The Senate is working on a comprehensive reform bill that includes a separate path to citizenship for undocumented farm workers.
The agricultural guest worker program proposed by Goodlatte would be a replacement for the H-2A program, which critics say is slow and overly bureaucratic. The new program would allow up to 500,000 workers a year to enter the country for jobs with an initial span of three years. It does not offer a permanent legal status for illegal immigrants.
A Goodlatte aide said the question of "how to bring the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows" would be addressed separately.
The United Farm Workers union said Goodlatte's plan would slash wages and benefits for workers and deny the opportunity of legal status.
In a statement, Goodlatte said his plan "is good for those seeking a better life for their families by providing opportunities to earn a living while temporarily working in agricultural jobs U.S. citizens are not willing to do."
Food processors said the new guest worker program would help assure a stable workforce in rural America.
The meat industry has moved its processing plants into rural areas since the 1990s and drawn foreign-born, and especially Hispanic workers, to rural communities. In some agricultural counties, such as Imperial County, California, Clark County, Idaho, and Seward County, Kansas, foreign-born residents account for more than one-quarter of the population.
Dairy and livestock farms, who need workers year-round, would benefit from longer-term visas for guest workers, who now are limited to seasonal work.
Up to 60 percent of the estimated 2 million hired farm workers are undocumented. The H-2A guest worker programs provides about 70,000 additional workers a year.
Food processors called for longer-term visas for lower-skilled workers as part of immigration reform early this year.
"We are manufacturers, wanting a stable and permanent workforce that can help sustain the rural communities where we do business," said Mike Brown, speaking for a coalition of meat, poultry and egg producers and processors at a House hearing on Feb 26.
Goodlatte proposed an H-2C guest worker program that would allow a visa of up to three years for year-round jobs on the farm or in processing plants, including packing plants, before workers would be required to leave the country. The visas could be renewed for up to 18 months at a time followed by a return home. To ensure workers return home, 10 percent of their wages would be paid through the U.S. embassy in their home country.
Undocumented workers with a record of agricultural employment would be eligible to continue to work legally on U.S. farms. When the H-2C program is in operation, they also would be required to leave the United States periodically.
By comparison, the Senate immigration bill would allow undocumented farm workers to apply for permanent residency after five years. It would allow 122,333 guest workers a year with visas good for up to three years at a time. It has no provision for processing plants.
The farm workers union said the Goodlatte package would eliminate many labor protections for workers as well as remove current requirements for employers to provide housing for guest workers and to cover the cost of transportation.
A coalition of growers said it would stick to the farm worker terms of the Senate bill.
Also on Friday, Goodlatte was a cosponsor of a bill to strengthen the E-Verify electronic system to check if job applicants can work legally in the United States. Goodlatte said better enforcement would discourage illegal immigration.