The Trump administration vowed Thursday to make it easier for farmers to bring in foreign laborers to help pick their crops and milk their cows, but offered few details on promised policy to address one of the ag sector’s most pressing concerns.
President Donald Trump will make good on earlier promises to help the ag sector maintain a stable work force and government agencies are “working in coordination to propose streamlining, simplifying and improving the H-2A temporary agriculture visa program - reducing cumbersome bureaucracy and ensuring adequate protections for U.S. workers,” the USDA said in a joint statement with the Labor, State and Homeland Security Departments.
Sources say officials told farm groups Thursday that they want to finalize a rule making the changes in time for the 2020 growing season. The departments will first have to propose a rule and take comment on it.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has already said USDA was working on a way to make the department the entry point for H-2A applications, but that wasn’t addressed in the statement.
The House agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal 2019 includes report language authored by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., that directs USDA to develop a "cloud-based, online platform through which agricultural employers will complete the H-2A petition and certification process."
What was addressed in the joint statement – and could sound alarms for the ag sector – is the E-verify system for ensuring that workers are legally in the U.S. Some states have mandatory E-verify requirements, but many farmers worry that a move to a national mandate without first securing farm labor needs could have severe consequences for their ability harvest their crops.
The rule under development wouldn't make E-Verify usage mandatory.
The Thursday statement stressed that “by improving the H-2A visa program and substantially reducing its complexity, the Administration also plans to incentivize farmers’ use of the E-Verify program to ensure their workforce is authorized to work in the United States.”
The immigration debate on Capitol Hill was at least partially responsible for the failure of the House to pass a new farm bill this month. Some Republicans who voted against the farm bill in an effort to force debate on an immigration bill sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
Goodlatte’s bill would increase border security, require all employers to verify workers’ legal status with the E-verify system, and replace the H-2A visa program for farmworkers with a different program.
(Updated with sources describing timing of rule.)
Philip Brasher contributed to this report.