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Farm-Labor Reform Bill Heads For House Vote This Week

More than 300 farm groups, processors and lenders signed a letter of support for the bill.

Six weeks after sponsors unveiled their plan, the House is scheduled to vote on a bipartisan bill to provide legal status to undocumented farmworkers and to modernize the H-2A guest worker program. If passed, the bill has an uncertain future, with impeachment dominating the congressional agenda and the Republican-run Senate blockading legislation from the Democratic-controlled House.

The House could vote as early as Wednesday on the bill; the Rules Committee is to meet Tuesday to set the terms of debate for it. Lead sponsor Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, says the legislation is a first-of-its-kind compromise on immigration and agricultural labor. Cosponsor Dan Newhouse, a Washington State Republican, told Capital Press the bill responds to the No. 1 concern of growers: a reliable workforce. “When we have a large portion of the labor force without proper documents, we need to deal with it somehow,” he said.

Recent attempts at farm-labor reform, including a Republican proposal last year, have died after becoming entangled in broader immigration legislation. Congress has not passed an ag-labor reform bill in three decades, according to backers of the Lofgren-Newhouse bill. The House Judiciary Committee voted 18-12, along party lines, on November 20 when it cleared the bill for a floor vote.

By some estimates, half of U.S. farmworkers, possibly 1.25 million people, are undocumented. The Lofgren-Newhouse bill would give them legal status as Certified Agricultural Workers if they continue to work at least 100 days a year on the farm. Workers eventually could qualify for a green card, allowing permanent residence in the U.S.

Opponents say the farm-labor bill will open the door to a massive amnesty for illegal immigrants. Georgia Republican Doug Collins says, “[T]he real point of this bill is … a path to to citizenship for an unknown number” of undocumented workers and their families.

Along with legal status for undocumented farmworkers, the bill would streamline the H-2A visa program by allowing employers to file one application for all the workers they will need at various points in the year and giving guest workers visas that are good for three years. Some H-2A visa holders could work at dairies and other year-round employers.  At present, H-2A visas are available for seasonal work. The bill also would limit wage increases to 3.25% a year and provide more USDA funding for farmworker housing. After the legalization and H-2A reforms have been implemented, the government would phase in mandatory use of E-Verify, a federal database of people authorized to work in the U.S.

The advocacy group Farmworker Justice says 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.

More than 300 farm groups, processors, and lenders signed a letter of support for the bill. The largest U.S. farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the bill “is not good enough yet.” The California Farm Bureau supports the bill. The United Farm Workers union backs the bipartisan bill, too. UFW Secretary Treasurer Armando Elenes told High Country News that both sides made concessions on the bill. “We figured out what’s politically feasible. And we get flak on both sides,” he said.

The leading states for farm labor are mostly in the West, says the UFW’s Elenes. Some 55% of H-2A workers were in five states —  North Carolina, Washington State, Florida, Georgia and California — in 2017, said the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower immigration. Use of guest workers has soared in the past decade.

For a two-page summary of the bill, click here.

Information about the farm labor bill, HR 5038, is available here.

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