Goodlatte introduces bills to bolster farm worker program

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2013 - House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., today introduced two bills that aim to provide a “workable” temporary agricultural guest worker program and to ensure that the nation's farm workers are documented.

The Agricultural Guestworker “AG” Act (H.R. 1773), with six Republican co-sponsors, seeks to remove barriers and excessive paperwork farmers face in hiring foreign workers while seeking to protect farmers from abusive litigation.

“Today's introduction of the AG Act is one piece that brings us closer to solving the immigration puzzle,” Goodlatte said. “While it is important that we reform our immigration system as a whole, we must look at each of the individual issues within the larger system to ensure that we get immigration reform right.”

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In addition, Goodlatte introduced the Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 1772), would mandate the use of the federal work authorization program, E-Verify, by all employers.

Goodlatte's AG Act would create a new guest worker program to provide H-2C visas and the program would be operated by USDA, the Homeland Security Department, and the State Department. Currently, the Labor Department oversees most visa programs.

Goodlatte said, under the bill, a grower designated as a registered agricultural employer by USDA would be able to easily hire guest workers already admitted to the United States without having to file an additional petition for the individual worker. 

The bill would set a 500,000 visa cap on the workers, but the agriculture secretary would have the authority to raise or lower the cap. In addition, the bill would eliminate the current wage rate floors and replace it with the prevailing wage rate or the state minimum wage, whichever is higher.

Under the new program, guest workers would not eligible for Obamacare, the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, or other welfare programs.

The legislation seeks to discourage frivolous and abusive litigation against growers by allowing them to require as a condition of employment that guest workers be subject to binding arbitration and mediation of any grievances in relation to the employment relationship. The bill also would eliminate “special treatment” for the Legal Services Corporation, Goodlatte said.

Goodlatte's other bill (H.R. 1772) would set a timeline for the phase-in of mandatory E-Verify use.

Companies with more than 10,000 employees would have six months from enactment of the bill to comply while companies with 500 to 9,999 employees would have one year. Companies with 20 to 499 employees would have 18 months, and companies with 1 to 19 employees would have two years to comply.

Employees performing “agricultural labor or services” also would have to comply within two years.

“The future of immigration reform hinges on ensuring the American people that our immigration laws are enforced,” Goodlatte said. “In the past, politicians promised us tougher enforcement in exchange for the legalization of those unlawfully in the U.S., but these promises were never kept and today we are left with a broken immigration system.”

Goodlatte's bills come about a week after the “group of eight” senators introduced a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform package that would provide a pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented people, including farm workers.

That bill also would mandate E-Verify use, but would give farmers five years to comply.

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), a big supporter of the Senate plan, called Goodlatte's bills “an important first step in the House.”

“The AWC remains committed to the landmark agreement on agricultural immigration reform that was reached with the United Farm Workers [in the Senate],” the group said. “The principles of the AWC/UFW agreement will continue to guide our efforts as work on the immigration issue begins in Congress.”

Meanwhile, the UFW blasted Goodlatte's bills.

“Besides not including a new immigration process that would allow farm workers who feed us every day to legalize their status and earn permanent legal residence over time, Goodlatte's proposed immigration reform plan would eliminate many long-standing worker protections and slash wages for foreign and domestic workers,” said UFW spokeswoman Maria Machuca. “Instead, we urge lawmakers to support the comprehensive immigration reform bill currently in the Senate, which has bipartisan support.”

Text of H.R. 1773 can be viewed here. Text of H.R. 1772 can be viewed here.


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