Ag immigration bill advances out of House

Senate yet to find strong bipartisan support to tackle the languishing ag labor situation.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

December 12, 2019

5 Min Read

The U.S. House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation – the Farm Workforce Modernization Act - Wednesday originally to reform the U.S. immigration system for farmworkers in a bipartisan vote of 260 to 165. Although there was widespread support from many agricultural interests, the bill faces an uncertain path forward in the Senate as the largest farm organization as well as the Administration does not support the bill in its current form.

The bill would modernize and streamline the H-2A process for growers to hire farmworkers in response to their labor needs. Additionally, the legislation would create a merit-based visa program for agricultural workers to earn legal status through continued employment. It also establishes a mandatory, nationwide E-Verify system for all agricultural hiring with a structured phase-in and guaranteed due process for authorized workers who are incorrectly rejected by the system.

Yet, one of the biggest complaints from Republicans is the amnesty offered to current illegal farmworkers, which may total as many as 2.5 million individuals, as well as their children and spouses.

In the Senate, there is no Republican ready to work side-by-side with Democrats in taking up the House bill, revealing the House’s shortfalls in legislation that can garner the needed 60 votes to advance in the Senate.

After the bill, lead author Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.) said, “The bill is not perfect; it is a compromise,” and added after decades of missed opportunities in passing a bill, it offers a piece of hope moving forward in addressing the ag labor situation.

Lofgren said you never know what will happen in the Senate, but there are “very active discussions underway with members of the Senate because they realized 350 agricultural groups plus support this for a reason; this is necessary for farm employers and farm workers,” she said in a press conference following the vote.  

More than 300 dairy, agriculture, business, and agriculture-allied organizations urged House leaders in mid-November to bring the bill to the floor for a full House vote, while more than 80 immigration and labor advocacy organizations called on their representatives to support the measure. The Cato Institute, whose analysis estimated the bill “would have saved H-2A farmers in 2019 about $324 million in labor expenses for H-2A workers alone.” The bill would “substantially reduce the illegal market for labor and increase agricultural production, without harming U.S. workers,” the organization said. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which stated the bill “would take important steps to address the growing struggle of agricultural employers to meet their workforce needs.”

The National Association of State Departments (NASDA), made up of both Democratic and Republican state agricultural directors, was encouraged by the House passage. “We know the tremendous challenges of agriculture labor requires a multi-faceted approach. As agriculture producers across the country continue to face extreme headwinds, we strongly underscore that any progress is a step in the right direction,” NASDA president and North Dakota agriculture commissioner Doug Goehring said in a statement.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, said the bill misses the mark on what it currently needed for the ag industry.

“At a time when the farm worker shortage has reached a crisis in parts of the country, it is deeply disappointing that the House blocked any possibility of improving the legislation designed to address the problem, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Several amendments addressed our principal concerns, but were blocked from consideration,” Zippy said, resulting in the organization being unable to support the final bill. “We will turn our attention to the Senate where we hope legislation is crafted that provides long-term solutions to the farm labor crisis. Farmers need meaningful reform that addresses the concerns of both workers and growers.”

Within the legislation, the adverse effect wage rate (AEWR) would continue, and the Farm Bureau is instead advocating to make the wage more market based and competitive for growers. Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said many of the farm bureau members felt 2019 AEWR levels are already placing U.S. farm operations at a “breaking point.” She noted these growers are being forced to compete against cheap foreign imports where “foreign farmers are having to pay each day the equivalent of what U.S. farmers have to pay in one hour” for labor costs.

Mike McCloskey, dairy farmer and chair of the National Milk Producer Federation’s Immigration Task Force, said, “We will use this momentum to work with the Senate to build consensus in drafting an improved bill that further addresses dairy’s workforce needs.”

“The urgency to reform the agricultural labor system cannot be overstated for dairy farmers,” McCloskey noted. “House members on a bipartisan basis showed us that they are taking our labor crisis seriously.” Dairy farmers were granted full year-round H2A access, whereas other industries such as meatpacking and poultry and livestock sectors were not allowed access to the current seasonal ag worker program.

While speaking at the National Grain and Feed Assn. (NGFA) Country Elevator Conference on Dec. 9, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in its current form in the House, the amnesty provisions provide a roadblock in offering support to support those people here illegally.

“The House bill does deal with seasonality issues for dairy farmers, and we’re encouraged by that,” Perdue said. “I think the Administration is interested in a legal guestworker program for those who are here illegally.”

Perdue said the Administration plans to roll out its own merit-based immigration proposal in early 2020. He anticipates that proposal to include opportunities to develop a reliable ag guestworker program and provide those lower-skilled workers the way to come and work and then go back to their homes. He said the Administration is already working with Guatemala and Mexico to pre-certify people to come up for economic opportunities and learn farming skills.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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