Farm immigration bill heads to Senate

By Kevin Hecteman
California Farm Bureau

A bill that would give agricultural employees a path to legal status and revamp the H-2A agricultural-visa program has taken a significant step forward.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, sponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., was approved by the House of Representatives last week, with a bipartisan majority, 260-165. The bill, HR 5038, now goes to the Senate.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson called the bill’s passage “a huge step toward addressing problems that have harmed farmers, ranchers and their employees for more than a generation.”

“Immigration issues are complex, but we thank the members of Congress who saw clearly the need to address current and future workforce needs for agricultural employers and employees,” Johansson said. “We look forward now to working with the Senate to finalize this long-needed set of reforms.”

The bill opens a door to legal status for immigrant employees who have put in at least 180 days of agricultural work during the previous two years. Qualified applicants would receive renewable, five-year visas if they work at least 100 days per year in agriculture. Holders of those visas could apply for legal permanent resident status by paying a $1,000 fine and working an additional four to eight years in agriculture, depending on how long they have been in the U.S. before applying.

Mandatory use of the E-Verify system would be phased in to weed out those not authorized to work in the U.S., with due process guaranteed for people who should be allowed to work but are wrongly rejected.

On the H-2A side, access to the guestworker program would be streamlined and wage growth capped. A six-year portability pilot program would allow guestworkers to work for multiple employers on a single visa. In addition, for the first time, year-round operations such as dairies and nurseries would be able to participate under another pilot program.

Other agricultural organizations back the bill as well—more than 300 agricultural groups and companies wrote to House leaders last month in support of the legislation.

“The farm labor crisis is real and crippling, and the demand to provide a workable legislative solution is immediate and critical, which is why we urge the Senate and President Trump to engage in the legislative process to improve the Farm Workforce Modernization Act,” Western Growers chief executive Tom Nassif said.

New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher expressed encouragement about the inclusion of dairy farms in the H-2A program and the bill’s provisions to address the needs of immigrant workers already in the U.S.

“Their contributions to our food system are invaluable and should be recognized through the passage of this bill,” Fisher said.

California Fresh Fruit Association President Ian LeMay said passage of HR 5038 “demonstrates that bipartisanship still exists, that when faced with a common challenge we can still rise to the occasion and do the right thing.”

Sara Neagu-Reed, CFBF associate director of federal policy, said House passage of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act “sends a clear message to all that bipartisan work is truly the only way to get things done in D.C.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation withheld support for the bill, seeking changes in its H-2A provisions. AFBF President Zippy Duvall said he hopes the Senate can craft legislation “that provides long-term solutions to the farm labor crisis.”

Neagu-Reed said discussions on the bill have begun with key senators, both Republicans and Democrats.

“California agriculture will play a big role with Senator (Dianne) Feinstein’s involvement in the past and interest in the issues,” Neagu-Reed said. “We feel confident the Senate will begin their process in the new year.”

Johansson said while House passage of the bill represents a milestone, a long road and much work still lie ahead.

“We will put in that work in order to deal fairly with the existing farm workforce and their immediate families, to make the H-2A guestworker program more valuable and flexible, and to ease the chronic employee shortages that have troubled so many farms and ranches around the country,” Johansson said.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at [email protected].)

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