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House proposes new ag guestworker immigration program

Proposed new H-2C program extends guestworker program for dairy and food processors, but doesn't address wages or pathway to citizenship.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) unveiled the first of his immigration bills April 26, which included a new ag guestworker program starkly different than what has been negotiated between Senate members and agricultural workers and employers.

Goodlatte said although the House "Gang of 8" continues to work on bipartisan comprehensive reform, his committee hopes to propose legislation on individual components of the immigration debate to "fine tooth through each issue."

“One component that needs fixing is our temporary agricultural guestworker program, which American farmers avoid using altogether since it exposes them to frivolous litigation and burdens them with excessive regulations," Goodlatte said in a statement. "The new guestworker program created under the AG Act remedies this problem by removing red tape, streamlining access to a reliable workforce, and protecting farmers from abusive lawsuits.

Goodlatte proposes replacing the existing H-2A agricultural temporary worker program with a new H-2C program. His approach has an "at-will" component which will allow producers to employ H-2C workers without first having to petition for them if they're designated as a registered agricultural employee.

One major shortfall with the current H-2A program is the 10-month stay limit and limitations on year-round labor needs such as dairy and livestock producers. The maximum stay for H-2C workers in temporary or seasonal jobs is 18 months, after which an H-2C worker must remain outside the U.S. for a period equal to at least 1/6 of the duration of their stay on an H-2C visa. 

For H-2C workers in jobs that are themselves permanent, the requirement to remain outside the U.S. after the first 18 month period is waived.  These workers can initially work for up to 36 months before having to leave the U.S. for a maximum period of 3 months.

Goodlatte's bill also extends the ability for food processors to use the H-2C program, something the Senate and current program do not allow.

Unlike the current H-2A program, the current House version removes the requirement to provide transportation and housing to H-2C workers.

The total number of aliens who may newly receive H-2C status is limited to 500,000 a year, compared to the 112,333 in the Senate version. The Secretary of Agriculture has the authority to raise or lower this cap based on a number of considerations in Goodlatte's proposal. 

The one major similarity with the Senate version is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new role as administrator and regulates compliance of the program.

The United Farm Workers, the major farmworker union involved in the Senate negotiations, criticized the proposal, saying it "would eliminate many long-standing worker protections and slash wages for foreign and domestic workers," said United Farm Workers spokeswoman Maria Machuca. Goodlatte's proposal would not provide a roadmap to citizenship for the current farm worker labor force, something crucial to garner support from UFW.


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