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Farm labor bill faces an uncertain future in Senate

California Farm Bureau Federation Farm laborers
A bill that would provide legal status and a pathway to citizenship for immigrant farmworkers faces an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate.
Feinstein has promised to push the Farm Workforce Modernization Act forward

A farm labor bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in December with mostly Democratic support faces an uncertain future in the Senate, even as California’s senior senator promises to take up the mantle.

The bill by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., that seeks to improve agricultural visa programs and accommodate immigrant agricultural workers already in the United States enjoyed wide support among farm groups and passed with bipartisan support.

But the Republican-controlled Senate will likely “take a different approach,” and will likely introduce a separate bill, asserts Robert Guenther, the United Fresh Produce Association’s senior vice president of public policy.

“There will probably be some elements of the House bill included in the Senate bill, but we don’t see the (Lofgren-Newhouse) bill taken up in the Senate directly,” Guenther told Western Farm Press. “That may change.

“What we’re trying to do right now is put together a coalition of the willing that would work on a bill in the Senate that will focus on ag labor,” he said.


One senator who plans to push the House version is California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who worked on the House negotiations and helped craft the bill to include, among other things, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.

“We don’t actually need to introduce a bill,” said Adam Russell, Feinstein’s press secretary. “We can actually move that bill itself … It becomes the vehicle with which to move the bill over here.”

As the impeachment effort was dominating the headlines, the Democrat-led House passed its farm labor bill Dec. 11 by a vote of 260 to 165. In all, 34 Republicans voted in favor, including three from California – Reps. Doug LaMalfa, Devin Nunes and Paul Cook.

The House bill’s provisions include:

  • A requirement that applicants show at least 180 days of agricultural employment over the last two years;
  • Five-year renewable agricultural visas for qualified applicants with an option for permanent resident status;
  • H-2A visa program improvements;
  • Wage reform; and,
  • Language said to streamline the filing of applications.


California farm leaders and local political leaders from various San Joaquin Valley locations, including several mayors, praised the bill last fall at a press conference hosted by the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno. Several pointed out that this is the first real attempt at significant immigration reform since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was signed by then-President Ronald Reagan.

But the bill faces opposition from some conservatives who consider it “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, and the American Farm Bureau Federation has withheld its support over concerns that wage provisions could make it difficult for farmers to compete in the global marketplace.

The AFBF is part of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, which is urging the Senate to enact H-2A program reforms.

“We’re continuing to talk to senators to keep abreast of what’s happening,” Guenther said. “The Senate’s following this pretty well. We’re not saying we’re starting with a blank sheet of paper. We’re saying, ‘What’s the foundation under which the Senate bill can get 60 votes? And how can you get Senator (Mitch) McConnell’s attention to bring it to the floor?’”


Farm groups are trying to instill a sense of urgency as another dramatic increase in the Adverse Effect Wage Rage (AEWR), the U.S. Department of Labor-regulated hourly rate agricultural employers are required to pay H-2A temporary foreign workers, took effect on Jan. 2. The House bill would limit future AEWR increases, proponents say.

“In Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico – which combine to produce two-thirds of all fresh produce grown in the U.S. – our farms have now experienced an average AEWR increase of more than 23 percent over the past two years,” said Tom Nassif, Western Growers’ president and chief executive officer.

“The AEWR already substantially exceeds the minimum wage rates set by these four states,” Nassif said. “As any business owner can attest, it is difficult to remain profitable in the face of such significant and repeated surges in labor costs.”

The AEWR increase is “certainly one of the arguments we make as to why there needs to be a process in the Senate,” Guenther said.

“The first step is to get a bill introduced, then see where it goes from there,” he said. “I feel good about a bill being introduced. If it’s introduced by the spring, we have a shot. If we go into late summer, it’s just going to be a monumental task to try to get it through.”

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