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Trump Backs Merit Plan That Halves Legal Immigration

Returning to a signature issue of his campaign, President Trump endorsed a Senate bill for a skills-based system for immigration that could have a distant effect on farm labor because it would halve the flow of legal immigrants. The Ag Workforce Coalition of farm groups said, it “continues to work with key lawmakers on legislation that would address agriculture’s needs” for a legal and reliable supply of farmworkers with hopes that the issue will gain traction in the fall.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte expects to introduce soon a bill to create a new agricultural guest worker program, to be called H-2C, which also would be open to farmworkers now in the country illegally. It would allow guest workers to work at year-round jobs on farms and at food-processing plants for up to three years at a time. An estimated half to 70% of farmworkers are believed to be undocumented.

Growers say the current H-2A visa system for seasonal workers is cumbersome and sometimes does not deliver enough workers in time for harvest. The Ag Workforce Coalition advocates legal status for undocumented farmworkers and an overhaul of the guest worker program.

At the White House, Trump said the immigration bill sponsored by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) and Senator David Perdue (R-GA) “protects U.S. workers from being displaced” and “will give American workers a pay raise by reducing unskilled immigration.”

The bill would give priority for permanent residency — so-called green card status — to applicants based on education, English-language skills, job offers, age, and past achievements. Over 10 years, the number of immigrants admitted would drop to 500,000 from the current 1 million annually, “to limit low-skilled and unskilled labor,” says a White House fact sheet.

“I think it’s going to be very, very important — the biggest change in 50 years, biggest change in 50 years,” said the president.

Four years ago, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation that included a separate path to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers, but it died without a vote in the House. Immigration has been a fraught issue since.

In his first weeks in office, Trump signed executive orders for deportation of illegal immigrants and to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Both were prominent parts of his presidential campaign with his promise of strict enforcement of the border and immigration law.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on Twitter that he supports merit-based immigration. “Unfortunately, another part of the proposal reduces legal immigration by half including many immigrants who work legally in ag, tourism, and service.” Agriculture and tourism are the two largest industries in South Carolina, he said. “If the proposal were to become law … [it would be] devastating to [the South Carolina] economy which relies on this immigrant workforce.”

The National Farmers Union, the second-largest U.S. farm group, tweeted, “#immigration reform needs to include real solutions for farmers & ranchers, many of who rely on immigrant workers.”

An aide to Senator Cotton said the immigration bill was silent on agricultural labor. The Ag Workforce Coalition said it took no position on the bill.

FERN’s Ag Insider. Produced by FERN
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