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Proposed farm labor bill clears pathway for guest worker's rights

"Our nation’s agriculture industry is diverse and flourishing, but producers are in desperate need of a legal and reliable workforce."

A new farm labor reform bill introduced in late Oct. by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) is garnering strong support from farm groups, but it is anticipated to have little support from the White House.

The bill, supported by a group of nearly 44 bi-partisan House members as of mid-November, would establish improvements in the H2A agricultural visa program and accommodate immigrant agricultural employees already in the United States, while assuring border security, according to supporters of the bill. For the first time, the bill, if approved, would accommodate guest worker visas for year-round operations such as dairies and nurseries.

The bill, titled the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, may have little chance of support from the White House. McClatchy News Service reported recently that a senior administration official said, “the White House is unlikely to back the legislation.”

The new bill was one of two immigration bills passed by the House on the same day. The other, sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) and titled The New Deal for New Americans Act, would ban deportations based on public charge determinations, establish a federal office to aid in immigrant integration, and increase federally funded immigration services like workforce training and English classes.

The bill would affect only migrants who had entered the United States legally and would not apply to those gaining entry without authorization.

Lofgren’s bill was drafted after negotiations and input from several farm support groups including the Farm Bureau, Western Growers, and others. Some 250 farm groups have voiced support for the bill so far.

“California farmers and ranchers have long sought reforms and improvements to immigration laws that would enhance the lives of agricultural employees and their families,” noted the California Farm Bureau Federation in a prepared statement.

“This comprehensive legislation contains key elements that address current and future workforce needs for agricultural employers and employees in California and throughout the nation,” CFBF President Jamie Johansson said. “The reforms in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 will provide much-needed solutions for agricultural employers and employees.”

Other support groups were vocal in their support for the bill.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would take important steps to address the growing struggle of agricultural employers to meet their workforce needs. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act seeks to provide workforce stability for agricultural workers by allowing unauthorized farm workers to earn legal status in the United States,” noted Neil L. Bradley, Executive Vice President, United States Chamber of Commerce.

“We have supported numerous efforts to address dairy’s acute labor needs.  Passing legislation in the House is a critical step in the process.  We urge the Senate to work with us on this important issue so we can get an ag worker bill across the finish line in this Congress. The bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act provides an important starting point for badly needed improvements to agriculture immigration policy,” said Jim Mulhern, President and CEO of National Milk Producers Federation.

A few other farm groups have voiced concern over the bill, some believing the legislation does not go far enough in addressing the many issues of farm worker immigration.

Balanced support across the aisle

Lofgren says the bill offers meaningful reforms to the H2A agricultural guest worker program and creates a first-of-its-kind, merit-based visa program specifically designed for the nation’s agricultural sector, a position supported by Newhouse.

“When I speak to farmers and ranchers across the country, labor is often their number one concern. Our nation’s agriculture industry is diverse and flourishing, but producers are in desperate need of a legal and reliable workforce,” Newhouse said.  “As a third-generation farmer, I understand the invaluable contributions made by farmworkers to American agriculture, and we must modernize our guest worker program to work for farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers in the 21st Century.”

Other key supporters of the Farm Workforce Modernization bill include Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota), Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California), Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-California), Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-California), Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla) and Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas).

“Agriculture needs a reliable and legal source of workers. I want to thank the bipartisan group of members who worked with ag groups to come up with this initial bill that can help move this dialogue forward.  This effort has produced a proposal that provides a better option than the status quo for many parts of U.S. agriculture,” said Rep. Peterson.

“For many years, farmers and farmworkers from the Central Coast to the center of America to the East Coast have faced continued uncertainty when it comes to agriculture labor,” said Rep. Panetta. “Fortunately, my colleagues and I not only understand this issue, we understand what it will take to fix this issue.”

Sponsors and supporters of the bill say if adopted the legislation will:

  • Support agricultural workers in the United States to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment and contribution to the U.S. agricultural economy.
  • Reform the H2A program by offering flexibility to employers and ensure protection for workers.
  • Will establish a mandatory and nationwide E-Verify system for all agricultural employment and will guarantee due process for workers who are incorrectly rejected.

For a complete rundown on the benefits to farmers, ranchers and workers as authorized under the act, visit this site.

The bill has already garnered the largest support of immigration guest worker reform by Republicans. Some 320,000 immigration workers could be eligible for legal status if the bill should become law.

See also: www.farmprogress.com/legislative/immigration-bill-has-wide-support-among-agriculture-and-labor

The bill was expected to be passed to the Judiciary Committee by mid-November.

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