Farmers will finally get the House debate they’ve wanted for years on agricultural labor needs, but it’s not clear how much they will like the solution that GOP leaders put on the floor, and the legislation will likely face huge hurdles to becoming law. 

In an effort to head off an immigration debate they couldn’t control, House GOP leaders promised to hold a pair of votes as soon as this week on legalizing Dreamers and a third vote on a separate bill in July to address the needs of agricultural labor. 

The standalone ag labor vote was part of a deal worked out with GOP moderates, including Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., to avoid a series of votes that could have resulted in the House passing a Dreamer bill that President Donald Trump and many Republicans oppose. 

The farm labor bill that the House will consider in July is expected to create an agricultural guest worker program and make it mandatory for farmers and other employers to use the E-Verify system to check the legal status of employees. Beyond that, however, farm groups say they are not certain what will be in the bill. 

They’re getting conflicting signals from House Republicans. 

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said he expected the ag jobs bill to be along the lines of a measure that the House Judiciary Committee approved, 17-16, last fall and that Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., later folded into a much broader immigration bill designed to appeal to hard-line conservatives. The broader Goodlatte bill, one of the two measures that the House is expected to consider this week, is given the least chance of passing the House because it’s unacceptable to GOP moderates. 

Rep. Bob Goodlatte

House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

Voting on Goodlatte’s ag worker provisions as a standalone bill would have political benefit even if it has little chance of passing the Senate, said Conaway. The vote would “put people on record who are not supportive of production agriculture’s getting access to a work force that is essential,” he said.

Newhouse, a former Washington state agriculture director and third-generation Yakima Valley farmer, told Agri-Pulse that the provisions in the standalone are still subject to negotiation. He is not a member of the House Judiciary Committee, but he expects to have a role in the discussions, he said. 

Newhouse said the bill that the House will vote on is likely to be a “hybrid, or a combination of different things,” and he characterized Goodlatte’s bill as a starting point for the negotiations. “There were a lot of good things in the ag side of the Goodlatte bill that would make a good start for what we bring forth in July,” Newhouse said. 

Goodlatte’s ag labor bill, which would replace the existing H-2A program with a new H-2C visa program for farmworkers, made it through the Judiciary Committee only because some GOP opponents skipped the vote.

Democrats charged that the bill had so few employee protections that the imported workers would amount to “indentured servants." But the right-wing news site Breitbart also was critical, asserting in a news article that the “huge supply of temporary H-2C visa-workers would drag down Americans’ wages because the outsourcing workers would be paid a government-set wage slightly above the minimum wage."

Coupling the ag labor bill with mandatory E-Verify is seen as a way to win over those hard-line Republicans. 

But agricultural groups still have concerns with Goodlatte’s H-2C proposal, including the cap on the number of visas that could be issued. 

Farmworkers who are currently in the country illegally would have to seek legal status by applying for H-2C visas and a “touchback” rule would require them to leave the country periodically. The bill would require them to have health insurance and a portion of their pay would be withheld and returned to them only when they are back in their home country. 

Goodlatte has floated several changes to the bill in part to make it more palatable to GOP colleagues from agricultural districts. One change would allow existing workers to stay in the country while their visa applications are being processed. Goodlatte also signaled that the health insurance requirement could be softened. 

But there are still some unanswered questions, according to farm groups, including what happens to the spouses and children of existing workers. They would not be allowed to stay in the United States unless they obtain H-2C visas as well. 

Paul Schlegel, managing director of public policy and economics for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said his group is taking the bill seriously and is holding out hope that the Senate could take up the legislation if it passes the House. He said Goodlatte has tried to address some of their concerns. 

“Our goal is not to put people (House members) on the record. Our goal is to get something done,” he said. 

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Tuesday that he had no plans to write an immigration bill and that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., won't put the House's ag labor measure on the Senate floor unless it can be "done quickly and the president will sign it."

Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of AmericanHort, which represents greenhouse and nursery growers, indicated that agriculture groups would seek to shape any legislation while also pursuing modifications to the H-2A program through the regulatory process. 

“We certainly intend to have input into the process, and are collaborating with both like-minded interests and others in agriculture who may see things a little differently, to advance solutions that are good for American workers and rural economies,” Regelbrugge said. 

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