House committee approves Goodlatte farmworker bill
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WASHINGTON, June 19, 2013- The House Judiciary Committee today approved the Agricultural Guestworker “AG” Act in a vote of 20-16. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., sponsored the bill, which replaces the existing H-2A agricultural visa program with a new H-2C program.
The bill proposes to allow up to 500,000 temporary agricultural laborers into the United States per year. The visa would allow workers to stay in the US for up to 18 months, as opposed to the maximum of one year issued to H-2A visa holders. It provides further incentive for workers to honor the visa expiration after 18 months by withholding 10 percent of their earnings that can be retrieved when they return to their home countries.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said the withholding provision provided an incentive for undocumented farmworkers to honor their visas.
However, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. called the provision “incredibly obnoxious” and other Democrat panelists said taking an additional 10 percent of farmworker wages would put some workers below minimum wage.
Reps. David Valadao, R-Calif., and Sam Farr, D-Calif., signed a letter Thursday against the proposed H-2C program. Although they agreed H-2A is not efficient for most growers and should be replaced, they said Goodlatte's proposal “fails to provide an acceptable market-oriented portable visa option.”
“We harbor serious doubts that the program will appeal to many of our current, experienced workers,” the Valadao/Farr letter stated. “Without a realistic program structure that includes incentives for these workers to remain in agriculture, legislation will fail to stabilize the farm labor crisis in the near term.”
United Farm Workers said H-2C “would deprive U.S. farm workers of jobs by minimizing the recruitment obligations of employers, slashing wages and withholding 10 percent of workers' wages.”
UFW further maintained that the proposal limits workers access to judicial relief and legal assistance. The group also opposes the elimination of the requirement that employers provide housing for temporary workers, as well as the elimination of travel-expense reimbursement for temporary workers.
Goodlatte said his new guest worker bill is necessary because the current H-2A program exposes farmers to “frivolous lawsuits” and “burdens them with excessive regulations.” His bill would put USDA in charge of the guest worker program instead of the Department of Labor, replace the wage rate in the current program with a market-based wage proposal, and provide an opportunity for illegal workers to work lawfully in agriculture, but does not provide a pathway to citizenship or permanent residency for farmworkers.
Ranking Member John Conyers, D-Mich., said the more than one million undocumented workers in agriculture would have nothing but “guest worker visas that would require them to leave country in 18 months” under the new plan.
Calling Goodlatte's proposal “a report to deport scheme,” Conyers added that it “utterly ignores the invaluable compromise reached by the United Farm Workers and agricultural employers across the nation.”
The agreement between the Agricultural Workforce Coalition of more than 70 major farm groups and labor organizations does include a pathway by which farmworkers currently in the United States illegally could earn legal status.
“Considering that agreement, I'm not sure why we've crafted something that is completely new and opposed by members of the agricultural community,” added Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.
Goodlatte emphasized that the Agricultural Guestworker Act is designed to create a temporary worker program, not permanent legal status. “Only illegal immigrants currently preforming farm work can utilize the provisions,” he said. “Guest workers would periodically return to their home countries so that it remains a guest worker program and not a permanent immigration program.”
Ultimately, the bill passed the committee with 16 dissenting votes and will be reported as an amendment to a House immigration bill. The committee approved a few amendments to Goodlatte's program as well as established agreements between members to continue work on various details of a guest worker program.
Committee members approved an amendment from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, that would lengthen the amount of time guest workers have to return to their home countries from 30 to 120 days. Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Goodlatte both spoke in favor of the change and the committee voted unanimously for the amendment.
Several Republicans, including Goodlatte, opposed an amendment from Rep Steve King, R-Iowa, that would remove the legal status of guest farmworkers in H-2C. King said his amendment provided that “we're not going to include people in this bill that have already broken our laws. It does not prohibit people that might come in under the program.”
However, Goodlatte noted that an estimated 75 percent of current farmworkers are currently in the country illegally, so King's amendment “would prevent growers and the current workforce from continuing to work in agriculture” and “would be a disaster for American agriculture if we were to accept the amendment.”
The committee did agree to King's amendment that would not allow the Secretary of Agriculture to increase the cap of guest workers over 500,000.
Rep. Lofgren noted that while she opposes the overall bill, she supported the amendment on grounds that it would provide a more competitive labor market for farmworkers.
“To limit that number might at least have some impact on wage structure by having less poorly paid, abused, temporary farm workers,” she maintained. “Farmers may find a need to pay more to attract the workers they need.”
Members ended with a discussion regarding the appropriate number at which to cap the work visa program, with Rep. Darrell Issa suggesting to raise it to 1.2 million, citing the number as the amount needed for the agricultural workforce.
The discussion followed an amendment, originally sponsored by Rep. King, but later proposed by Rep. Lofgren, to lower the cap to 250,000. The committee rejected the amendment, but Goodlatte recognized that further compromise will likely continue on an exact number.
“Nobody knows the perfect number, but it's closer to 500,000 than it is to 250,000 or 1.2 million,” he said. Goodlatte objected to lowering it down to 250,000 because it “would cause serious problems for American agriculture.”
The Senate immigration bill, being debated on the Senate floor, limits the guest worker program to 112,000 visas per year. It also allows undocumented workers to apply for permanent residency cards. The Senate bill currently reflects the compromise reached between the Agricultural Workforce Coalition and the United Farm Workers reached earlier this year.
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