Congressional action brings new discussion on immigration reform

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By Vicky Boyd

A bipartisan bill that would offer farmworkers in the country illegally a path to legal status and streamline the H-2A guest worker program recently passed the House, drawing praise from numerous agricultural groups. The bill now moves to the Senate, where it is expected to face stiffer opposition.

“Obviously, the system needs to be fixed, and I’m glad we’re here with something. But I’m afraid with a lot of this stuff, it’s going to need some help before it’s where we need to be,” said San Joaquin Farm Bureau President David Strecker, a Delta area row-crop producer.

SJFB First Vice President Ken Vogel said he supports agricultural immigration reform if “it makes sense. It must help those who work for us and also help us – then that’s meaningful. Restrictions make it more difficult for us and for people who work for us.”

As a small cherry and walnut producer near Linden, Vogel works through a labor contractor to secure the crew he needs for four to six weeks each year to pick his cherries. But he knows of larger operations that bring in labor through the H-2A gprogram, “and they tell me it’s very cumbersome and it takes time and also it’s very expensive.”

Jake Samuel, who grows cherries and walnuts with his family near Linden, said changes over the past five or so years have significantly reduced the amount of available ag labor.

“It’s not like there are people in the area who want to work,” Samuel said. “And we’re paying good wages, too.”

He’s not alone in his observations, either. A 2019 employer survey conducted on behalf of the California Farm Bureau found 60% of Farm Bureau members had labor shortages. Even after they raised wages, more than 80% said they were unable to find more workers.

As a result, many growers have turned to the H-2A program, which has been difficult to navigate in the past.

As a small producer, Samuel said the program is not a viable option for him because he only needs about 35 workers for 30 days. But larger growers, those who pool their needs or those with longer seasons can better benefit from it.

Even if the Senate passes its version and President Joe Biden signs it, Samuel said ag labor is a long-term issue.

“With the pandemic, it’s going to take some time to bring the work force back,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be the fix for this season but maybe next year.”

Supporters remain hopeful

Congress has made several attempts during the past decade to pass immigration reform, only to have them fail. Vogel said he would like to see the current effort succeed.

“I’m hopeful, and I’ve been hopeful every year or every time this has come up,” he said. “As a farmer, we have to remain optimistic and we have to remain hopeful.”

Known as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, or House Resolution 1603, the bill passed 247-174 with 30 Republicans voting in favor.

With the country still divided politically, Strecker said he expected any vote in the Senate to be much closer.

“With something of this magnitude, it would be nice to get a lot more people on board for this to become law,” he said.

Moments after the House vote, Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) released a joint statement announcing they would introduce companion legislation in the Senate.

Their quick support, as well as Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s pledge to shepherd the bill through, prompted California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johannsen to be optimistic about its passage.

“A lot of opposition (in the Senate) is going to be that it should be comprehensive immigration and not just agricultural immigration reform,” he said. “That’s been our demise with all of the efforts in the past – ag gets lost. So I think we’re more apt to succeed going into the Senate if we can keep it really just focused on ag.”

H.R. 1603 also is the first agricultural labor reform bill to pass the House since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Johansson said. In addition, Biden has come out in support of the legislation.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., reintroduced the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to the House of Representatives in March. Four California representatives – including Josh Harder, D-Turlock – were among the 23 co-sponsors. The legislation also drew support from hundreds of ag-related groups.

A similar bill, H.R. 5038, passed the House in late 2019 but never made it to the Senate.

What the bill does

Title I of H.R. 1603 establishes a program for the 60% to 70% of agricultural workers in the United States illegally, along with their spouses and minor children, to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment.

If farm workers have worked at least 180 days in agriculture over the past two years, they could seek certified agricultural worker status. This could be renewed indefinitely as long as they worked at least 100 days per year in agriculture.

Applicants, including spouses and children, would have to undergo background checks and pass strict criminal and national security standards.

If long-term workers wanted to stay to earn a green card, they would first pay a $1,000 fine. In addition, they would have to have worked 10 years in agriculture before the bill was enacted plus another four years in agriculture afterward. If they worked less than 10 years in ag before the bill’s passage, they would need an additional eight years of ag work.

Title II of the bill would reform the H-2A temporary agricultural program to provide more flexibility to employers while still protecting workers. Among the changes would be streamlining the H-2A visa process, providing three-year visas, reducing paperwork and filing, and reforming H-2A wages to better reflect real-world rates. It would also expand the current seasonal worker program to include 20,000 full-time year-round workers such as for dairies and nurseries.

In addition, the title establishes a portable agricultural worker pilot program to aid the free movement and employment of up to 10,000 H-2A workers with registered agricultural employers.

The bill’s third title would establish a mandatory, nationwide E-Verify system for all agricultural employment, phased in after all H-2A reforms have been implemented.