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Backers Aim for Quick Action on Farm Labor Reform

Dozens of farm groups stood with 44 lawmakers — one tenth of the U.S. House membership — on Wednesday in support of bipartisan legislation to provide legal status to undocumented farmworkers and to modernize the H-2A agricultural guestworker program. Lead sponsor Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee in charge of immigration law, said “we have hope” of moving the bill quickly as a show of comity in a polarized Congress.

Time for action is short. A stopgap government funding bill expires on November  21, and the House may vote before Thanksgiving on impeachment of President Trump. Either issue could demand the full attention of lawmakers in a session scheduled to end in mid-December.

In a congressional show of force, Lofgren (D-CA) and Dan Newhouse (R-WA), the lead Republican cosponsor, announced their compromise bill in a congressional hearing room filled with cosponsors and representatives of ag groups. Cosponsors include Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN).

“We haven’t passed it yet — we’re taking a big step,” said Newhouse, who said the last time Congress passed agricultural labor reform was in 1986.

Some 236 farm groups, processors, and lenders, along with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank, signed a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy to secure passage of the bill. The largest U.S. farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, said it was studying the bill. The California Farm Bureau supports it, said state president Jamie Johansson, because it “takes care of the existing workforce” and assures a legal labor supply in the future.

The Lofgren-Newhouse bill would allow undocumented farmworkers to apply to be a Certified Agricultural Worker, a temporary legal status, if they have worked in agriculture for at least 180 days in the past two years and pass background, law enforcement, and national security checks. CAW status could be renewed indefinitely through continued work in agriculture of at least 100 days a year. Spouses and children would be covered by CAW status.

If they want permanent legal status (a green card), workers would have to pay a $1,000 fine and work for an additional time in agriculture, either four or eight years, depending on whether they have been a farmworker for at least 10 years.

The cumbersome H-2A system would be streamlined by allowing employers to file one application to cover all the workers needed at various points in the year and by giving workers visas good for three years. Some 20,000 three-year visas would be issued annually for year-round work in such jobs as dairy farming, where livestock need daily attention. At present, H-2A visas are available only for seasonal work. The bill also would limit wage increases to 3.25% a year and increase USDA funding for farmworker housing.

Under a pilot program, 20,000 Portable Agricultural Worker visas would be issued for laborers who could move from farm to farm. Guest workers are tied to a specific farm under the current system. The bill would also phase in the mandatory use of E-Verify — a federal database of people who can work legally in the country — after all of the legalization and H-2A reforms have been implemented. “This serves as the last necessary piece to ensure a legal workforce for the agricultural sector,” said a summary of the bill.

The United Farm Workers union, which took part in months of negotiations on the bill, said Lofgren and Newhouse “have constructed a thoughtful compromise on issues that have previously prevented agricultural and other immigration reform legislation from passing Congress,” and supported passage.

Asked about the White House’s position on the bill, Newhouse replied, “I can’t give you a definite answer. We’re still educating.”

Lofgren said discussions were under way with senators to build support for the legislation when it clears the House.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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