Sponsored By

INSIDE WASHINGTON: Bipartisanship possible on immigration reformINSIDE WASHINGTON: Bipartisanship possible on immigration reform

House subcommittee hearing offers hope of bipartisan solution to fixing the H-2A program and offering a pathway to legalization.

Jacqui Fatka

April 4, 2019

5 Min Read
INSIDE WASHINGTON: Bipartisanship possible on immigration reform

If ever there was a time for real solutions to fix the broken agricultural worker visa system, it is now. Earlier this week the agricultural industry was shaken when President Trump threatened to close the Mexico border in efforts to secure the border.

Growers who have had H-2A applications approved and expecting their workers to arrive on time, ready to help tend and harvest this year’s crops cannot afford even more reasons for labor shortages.

The H-2A program, and legal status for farmworkers, was the major focus of a hearing in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship for holding a hearing on “Securing the Future of American Agriculture.” And there may finally be a chance for a bipartisan solution which is fortunate for those impacted by a shortage of workers to do the labor-intensive agricultural jobs.

Western Growers president and chief executive officer Tom Nassif detailed the critical labor shortages facing American agriculture. After touching on the existing, flawed H-2A agricultural guest worker program, rife with burdensome regulatory red tape, Nassif outlined a two-pronged proposal for agricultural immigration reform that jointly provides a pathway to legalization for existing farmworkers and their immediate families and creates a more flexible, efficient and market-based agricultural worker visa program to ensure a sufficient future flow of labor.

Related:Ag industry concerned over proposed Mexico border closing

Nassif said one important change to the H-2A program would be to change from a seasonal, temporary program to one allowing for year-round work so those in the dairy industry and other agricultural segments could also utilize the workers. Bill Brim, president of Georgia-based fresh produce company Lewis Taylor Farms, also was supportive of making changes to allow for year-round workers to also access the agricultural visa options.

Nassif said Western Growers has advocated for existing workers who have worked in agriculture for a couple of years to have a pathway to legal status if they promise to work another three to five years after.

Brim, who farmed when the last major immigration reform allowed legal status to farm workers, saw all of his 150 foreign workers at the time leave the farm within six months. However, Arturo Rodriguez, former president of the United Farm Workers, said many of those who enter the country to work in the agricultural sector stay there. The overall reality is to figure out a way to elevate the status of the workforce by providing enough wages and benefits that will keep the workers in agriculture.

Related:DOL asked to keep H-2A newspaper ad requirement

Nassif, whose been working on agricultural labor issues for the past 18 years, said many of the problems are the same today as they were when he started. “However, nobody’s done anything about it for so long because it’s always been such a political hot potato. When we look at bare facts and look at economics, there is a dramatic need for these workers and the value they provide,” he said.

Nassif shared that Congress needs a bipartisan bill to have a reasonable chance to get signed by the president, and suggested Congress approach the difficult task with a “heart of peace and not a heart of war.”

United Fresh said it is committed to helping pass legislation that addresses the legal status of our current workforce that is improperly documented. In addition to that, they believe it is imperative to also pass legislation that addresses the future needs of our industry. To that end, the United Fresh Board of Directors approved a policy earlier this year that addresses modernizing these key issues on immigration reform:

  • Year-round visas for workers rather than temporary or seasonal

  • A wage rate that is protective of U.S. workers that is fair and predictable

  • Inclusion of workers in minimal processing such as cutting fresh fruits and vegetables

  • Housing and transportation allowances for foreign workers

  • Stronger administrative role by USDA to support U.S. agriculture’s needs

  • Flexibility for workers/employers in portability with up to three-year visas

  • No arbitrary cap on the number of visas; the program must reflect the actual demand for workers in the marketplace.

Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Assn. president and CEO, said, “For too long, the fresh fruit and vegetable industry has struggled to ensure that we have an adequate, legal workforce to harvest and produce the fruits and vegetables that consumers want and need.”

He added, “This is the first hearing in many years where we truly heard a bipartisan commitment to finding real solutions.”

Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.) said she too had a sense of optimism that they could come to agreement on what previously had been contentious issues. She said although Congress often fights on immigration, it is time to “come together in a bipartisan way to come up with solutions and make out constituents proud.”

Editors’ note: The Trump Administration announced Thursday that there will not be an immediate closure of our border with Mexico. “That is good news for farmers and ranchers on two fronts – trade and access to agricultural workers. Our farm and ranch families continue to face an economic storm that would have become even more severe had the border been closed. Our ability to secure workers through the H-2A program is essential to many of our farmers and growers, and we continue to seek additional improvements to help our farmers secure the workforce they need to grow and harvest their crops and tend their livestock. When it comes to trade, Mexico is an essential partner and we will continue to push for congressional approval of the USMCA trade agreement,” said American Farm Bureau Federation president Zippy Duvall.


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.

Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Feedstuffs is the news source for animal agriculture

You May Also Like