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House vote opens path to legal status for immigrant farmworkers

Thirty Republicans voted in favor of the bill, which was passed by the House in 2019 but never taken up by the Senate.

In a 247-174 vote, the Democrat-led House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act on Thursday, which would provide a path to legal status for almost 1 million immigrant farmworkers and reform the existing H-2A visa program for agricultural workers. The bill has received widespread, but not universal, support from food worker and farm advocacy groups.

Thirty Republicans voted in favor of the bill, which was passed by the House in 2019 but never taken up by the Senate. Demand for farm labor reform has been high among growers, who say it is increasingly difficult to find domestic farm laborers and who find the H-2A visa program onerous.

President Biden voiced his support for the bill on Twitter earlier in the day Thursday, saying, “Undocumented farm workers feed America and have been on the frontlines of this pandemic making sure we have food on our tables. … I urge Congress to pass the bill.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also expressed his support before the House vote. “The Farm Workforce Modernization Act addresses the nation’s future labor needs by modernizing an outdated system for temporary workers, while ensuring fair wages and safer workplace conditions,” he wrote on Twitter. “I strongly support the passage of this bill.”

The vote, as well as the passage earlier Thursday of the American Dream and Promise Act, which would create a path to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers,” was cheered by many farmworker advocates and farm groups.

“Today’s votes are the direct result of decades of determination by farmworkers and undocumented youth fighting for their right to keep their homes in the United States,” said Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the UFW Foundation, in a statement. “This is an opportunity for the nation to acknowledge that farmworkers have always been essential, putting food on the tables of Americans even during a pandemic. This is the year to get it done.”

Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, urged the Senate to take up the bill and said in a statement that it would “streamline and allow for greater flexibility in the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, making it simpler to find and hire qualified employees. For workers, it will strengthen protections as well as establish a route to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment.”

Notably, the bill is not supported by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a prominent coalition of groups advocating for food and farmworkers. “The FWMA was introduced under the Trump administration and expands the H-2A program without providing necessary oversight or adequate protections, and makes e-verify mandatory for all agriculture employers,” the group wrote in a press release earlier in March. “It excludes many workers from a pathway to status, sets up a very long path to finally acquire residency status, and requires farmworkers to continue working in agriculture for up to eight years to qualify.”

The bill is also not supported by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which said earlier this week that the “flaws and shortcomings in the bill are too great for us to support it.”

The bill still faces a difficult path in the evenly split Senate, and may be “destined to languish or die because of Republican opposition,” said The New York Times.

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