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Heeding Farm Bureau, Goodlatte Alters Farm Labor Legislation

As the House potentially takes up immigration reform in the coming weeks, the largest U.S. farm group wants to make sure agricultural labor is part of the legislation. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, has revised his plan for a new, year-round H-2C visa program to make it more attractive to farmers, who worry about their existing undocumented workforce as well as the creation of a more manageable guestworker program.

House Republican leaders have launched an internal campaign, similar to how they built support for the 2017 tax cut bill, to identify elements of a successful immigration bill. The starting point is the wide-ranging “Securing America’s Future Act,” HR 4760, sponsored by the chairmen of the House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees. The bill is popular among conservatives and is more restrictive than a White House-backed package that failed in the Senate last week.

The American Farm Bureau Federation urged lawmakers to keep Goodlatte’s guestworker plan in the final immigration bill. “We are at a crisis point in agriculture,” said Zippy Duvall, the Farm Bureau president. “The new H-2C program offers a much brighter future for agriculture. For farmers in sectors like dairy, mushrooms, and others, who are excluded from H-2A and have nowhere else to turn, the H-2C program offers a path forward in meeting their future labor needs.”

Goodlatte’s H-2C visa would replace the current, seasonal H-2A visa, which is criticized by farmers as unwieldy to use and unreliable in providing workers when they are needed at harvesttime. The H-2C visa would be open to meatpackers, dairies, and the timber industry — a first. Visas for specialized jobs would run for up to three years before workers are obliged to leave the U.S. and apply for reentry. Employers would no longer be responsible for transportation or housing of guestworkers, and wages could be as low as $8.34 an hour. But workers would gain the freedom to quit a job and work someplace else, once the E-Verify system is in operation.

An estimated half of U.S. farmworkers — 1 million people or more — are believed to be undocumented. Duvall said the AFBF was working with Goodlatte and other lawmakers “to provide greater assurance on how the AG Act would affect our existing workforce. Farmers today rely on these workers…Farm Bureau policy supports providing these workers the opportunity to earn permanent legal status.” When it was appproved by committee, the Goodlatte initiative said undocumented workers could gain legal status by joining the H-2C program but would be required to return to their home country before they could seek a U.S. job.

In response to “agriculture’s concern,” Goodlatte altered the committee-passed plan in five areas to ensure there will be enough farmworkers, according to a one-page Judiciary Committee fact sheet. Farmers would be allowed to obtain pre-approval of H-2C visas for workers before they leave the country, and it would allow a year, instead of the original six months, for undocumented workers to meet the “touch back” requirement.

To assure there are enough seasonal workers, the standard visa would last for 24 months, instead of the original 18 months. “This would increase the total number of agricultural workers subject to the cap who could be in the U.S. at any one time to 900,000 after the first year of the program,” said the Judiciary Committee.

The revisions also would give agricultural employers 24 months to adopt the E-Verify system of digitally checking if applicants can work legally in the U.S., and it specifies the Homeland Security Department must have E-Verify in operation within 24 months of enactment of the law, meaning H-2C guestworkers could work “at will” after that point.

Under the revisions, there would be a hard cap of 40,000 visas per year for the meatpacking industry.

When the Judiciary Committee approved the bill by one vote last October, conservatives wanted a more stringent guestworker program. Democrats said the bill was too extreme for Congress to accept because it abandoned wage and workplace protections.

Goodlatte’s revisions, as an amendment to the original Securing America’s Future bill, are available here.

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