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New push to replace broken H-2A farm labor program

The AG Act replaces the H-2A program with what will be called H-2C, which will be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Oct. 2 submitted a bill to create a new agricultural guestworker program.

The Agricultural Guestworker Act, or the AG Act, replaces the H-2A guestworker program, which has been criticized for more than two decades as a burdensome, expensive and unworkable program, and the farmers and ranchers who use the program have argued that by doing so they are often put at a competitive disadvantage compared to those who do not use the program.

The AG Act replaces the H-2A program with what will be called H-2C, which will be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “an agency that clearly understands the unique needs of America’s farm and ranch operations and the importance of getting perishable agricultural commodities to market in an efficient manner,” Goodlatte said in a statement.

According to Goodlatte, the new act will:

  • Allow experienced unauthorized agricultural workers to continue working in agriculture by joining the H-2C guestworker program so that they can participate legally in the agricultural workforce.
  • Give employers the opportunity to invest their time training workers for specialized or hard-to-fill jobs by allowing workers to stay for a longer period of time and provides flexible touchback requirements.
  • Allow the forestry industry, dairies, raw food processors, and other year-round agricultural employers to participate when adequate domestic labor cannot be found.
  • Offer workers and employers more choices in their employment arrangements, making it easier for workers to move freely throughout the marketplace, both to seek optimal working conditions and meet farmers’ fluctuating needs.
  • Allow non-seasonal agriculture workers to remain in the United States for up to three years while deferring a portion of their pay as incentive for them to return to their home country. Workers would need to return for one month for every year in the United States.
  • Allow undocumented workers, who can demonstrate agriculture work experience over the previous two-year period, to get an H2-C visa. An initial cap of 500,000 workers would be allowed, with allowances to adjust the number depending on U.S. agriculture labor demand.

“For far too long, the broken H-2A guestworker program has buried American farmers in red tape and excessive costs without delivering access to a stable and reliable workforce. It’s clear that the current program is outdated and broken for American farmers, and it’s well past the time to replace it with a reliable, efficient, and fair program that provides American farmers access to a legal, stable supply of workers, both in the short- and long-term, for seasonal as well as year-round work,” said Goodlatte.

Supporters weigh in

“Every year, farmers and ranchers face greater challenges in finding enough workers to keep their businesses running. The labor shortage on America’s farms and ranches is growing, and the lack of a stable, legal supply of workers places the health of too many farms at risk. We cannot afford to see any more of our nation’s food supply lost in the fields,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall.

“The Ag Act’s proposed guest worker visa program would bring much needed improvements to the current system while addressing the needs of our current workforce and providing a streamlined visa process for skilled, agricultural workers in the future,” Duvall said. “Although Farm Bureau members have concerns on certain points, such as capping the number of visas, we stand ready to work with Chairman Goodlatte and members of Congress to refine these provisions for the good of all U.S. agriculture.

"We commend Chairman Goodlatte for the improvements made thus far to secure a balance between the need for a legal workforce in agriculture today and in the future, with the necessity of dealing with illegal immigration. As the process unfolds, we look forward to working with both Republicans and Democrats on this legislation, which will lead to enactment of a solution that ensures agriculture producers have access to a legal and stable workforce," says the Agriculture Workforce Coalition in an Oct. 2 statement.

“The U.S. pork industry needs a viable agriculture workforce to remain globally competitive,” said NPPC President Ken Maschhoff, a pork producer from Carlyle, Ill., in a statement. “The current visa programs are not working for pork producers or for the broader agriculture community. The Goodlatte bill will rectify this.” 

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