A long-awaited update of the nation's agricultural immigration and guestworker laws has cleared a House of Representatives committee.
The House Judiciary Committee, on an 18-12 vote, sent the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 to the full House, which is expected to take up the measure in early December.
California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson, who was in Washington, D.C., for the committee hearing last week, welcomed the bill's advancement.
"We've overcome a lot of obstacles to get here, and there's still a long way to go, but we're encouraged by the prospects for reform and improvement of immigration laws that would benefit agricultural employees and their families," Johansson said.
The bill, H.R. 5038, would allow agricultural employees already in the U.S. to earn protective status as long as they have worked at least 180 days in agriculture during the previous two years. Five-year, renewable visas would be granted to such employees, along with their spouses and minor children, if the employees put in at least 100 days of agricultural work per year. People interested in permanent legal status must pay a $1,000 fine and work four to eight more years in agriculture, depending on length of previous service, before becoming eligible to apply.
The bill also seeks to revamp the H-2A guestworker program by streamlining the recruiting and application processes for employers, improving housing availability, capping the rate of wage increases and allowing year-round operations, such as dairies and nurseries, opportunities to participate via increased access to green cards and temporary, three-year visas. A six-year portability pilot program would also allow H-2A employees to work for multiple employers on a single visa.
In addition, the bill would phase in mandatory use of the E-Verify employment-verification system for agriculture.
The bill was introduced last month by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash. Cosponsors include Reps. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, and Jimmy Panetta, D-Salinas.
Calling the committee vote "momentous," Lofgren said the bill "offers stability for American farms by providing a path to legal status for farmworkers" and addresses future labor needs "by modernizing an outdated system for temporary workers, while ensuring fair wages and workplace conditions."
LaMalfa said the bill would provide "some long-overdue stability" for agriculture.
"Farmers have been calling for a legally documented workforce for years," LaMalfa said. "The bill protects the workers with legal status and facilitates humane travel across our borders."
Sara Neagu-Reed, CFBF associate director of federal policy, said the bill has wide support.
"A coalition of more than 300 agricultural groups, including CFBF, sent House leaders a letter urging them to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act," Neagu-Reed said. "We continue to work with all groups at the local, state and national levels leading up to the floor vote."
Johansson said the bipartisan bill will benefit everyone involved in agriculture.
"As Thanksgiving nears, there's no more meaningful way to recognize the contribution agricultural employees make to our food supply and rural communities than to deal fairly with immigrant employees and their immediate families," Johansson said. "We urge Speaker Pelosi to bring the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to a vote as soon as possible."
Neagu-Reed said CFBF will advocate for the bill with the California congressional delegation prior to the floor vote.
"We strongly urge all CFBF members throughout the state to contact their member of Congress to support this important legislation," she said.
For more information about the bill, see farmbureau.cfbf.com/ farm-workforce-modernization-act-2019/.
(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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