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House Panel Approves Farm Labor Reform, Floor Vote ‘Soon’

The House will vote soon on a bill to provide legal status to undocumented farmworkers.

The House will vote soon on a bill to provide legal status to undocumented farmworkers and to modernize the H-2A agricultural guestworker program — the first agricultural labor reform bill in three decades, said sponsor Rep. Zoe Lofgren. The Judiciary Committee approved the bipartisan bill, 18-12, on Thursday, after one opponent warned that “the bill opens the door to a massive amnesty” of undocumented workers and their families.

The committee cleared the farm labor bill for a floor vote just three weeks after Lofgren, a California Democrat, and Dan Newhouse, a Washington State Republican, unveiled the bill in a Capitol Hill room packed with cosponsors and an array of farm groups, processors, and lenders that back the overhaul. Recent attempts at ag labor reform have died after becoming entangled in broader immigration legislation.

“This bill’s approach is not yet good enough,” said the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farm group. It called for alterations to “ensure a fair and competitive wage rate” and limitations on the right of workers to file lawsuits against employers. The Democratic-controlled committee rejected three Republican amendments on those topics. The bill would freeze wages in 2020 and limit annual increases to no more than 3.25% through 2030.

“This momentous vote today in the Judiciary Committee moves our proposal forward so all members [of the House] can soon vote on the first-of-its-kind bipartisan immigration compromise in decades that improves America’s agricultural labor programs and laws,” said Lofgren, chair of the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration.

The Lofgren-Newhouse bill would allow undocumented farmworkers to apply to become certified agricultural workers, 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.

Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican, said the bill “opens the door to a massive amnesty,” with minimal standards to prove work in agriculture. “The real point of this bill is … a path to citizenship for an unknown number” of undocumented immigrants “along with their families,” said Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the Republican leader on the committee. Collins pointed to estimates that there are 1.5 million undocumented farmworkers.

“The country’s farms and our food system depend on immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and reform is long overdue,” said the advocacy group Farmworker Justice. The Lofgren-Newhouse bill “would enable hundreds of thousands of farmworker families to improve their living and working conditions and their participation in our economy and democracy.”

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. Guestworkers 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.

Florida Republican Greg Steube unsuccessfully proposed that the USDA should take over jurisdiction of the H-2A program from the Labor Department.

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