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House clears pathway for farm labor reform bill

Half of farmworkers, perhaps 1.25 million people, are believed to be undocumented.

The Democrat-controlled House put a bill giving legal status to undocumented farmworkers and streamlining the H-2A guestworker program on the legislative fast track on Tuesday. Party leaders hope to score a victory this week on a popular idea — an earlier version of the bill passed with bipartisan backing in 2019 — even as support for comprehensive immigration reform is lacking.

Representatives voted, 216-204, to limit debate on the bill to one hour and to bar amendments, assuring speedy handling. The bill has Democratic and Republican sponsors and broad, though not universal, support among farm groups. “This is a compromise,” said sponsor Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, that assures a legal and reliable workforce for agricultural employers.

Half of farmworkers, perhaps 1.25 million people, are believed to be undocumented. Farmers say it is increasingly difficult to find laborers domestically and that the H-2A visa program is both unduly onerous to use and often does not deliver guestworkers when they are needed. The use of H-2A visas has soared in the past decade.

Republicans said the legalization of undocumented immigrants would free them to compete with Americans for jobs and encourage more people to enter the country without permission. The requirements for maintaining legal status as a so-called certified agricultural worker — 100 days of farm labor a year — are minimal, and family members would face no such obligation, objected a California Republican.

The House Rules Committee, which sets the terms for debate on legislation, rejected, 7-3, a Republican request for a floor vote on year-round H-2A visas. At present, guestworkers are limited to seasonal labor. The bill sponsored by Lofgren and Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Washington Republican, would allow up to 60,000 visas for year-round work at dairy farms and other agricultural operations. Republicans wanted to eliminate the cap on year-round visas.

Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole said the farmworker bill and a separate bill to legalize so-called Dreamers were “filled with poison pills” that would prevent Republicans from supporting them. “It’s about making a point,” Cole said of Democrats’ intentions. The Dreamers bill also is expected to pass this week.

The largest U.S. farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, said it “does not support the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Although some provisions in the bill align with our policy goals, flaws and shortcomings in the bill are too great for us to support it.” Critics of the Lofgren-Newhouse bill want more protection against increases in pay rates and expansion of workers’ rights.

Despite President Biden’s support, comprehensive immigration reform faces an uphill battle, even with Democratic control of both the House and Senate. House Democratic leaders decided to go ahead with the stand-alone farmworker and Dreamer bills after head counts showed insufficient support for broad-scale reform at present. The situation is believed to be the same in the Senate.

A two-page summary of the Lofgren-Newhouse bill is available here.

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