House Democrats say they are sympathetic to farmers who are struggling to find sufficient labor, but any compromise on fixes to the H-2A visa program will likely require support from farmworkers. 

The House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee held an initial hearing on ag labor issues Wednesday, and afterwards the chairwoman, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. said she would “engage in discussions” to see if an agreement could be reached on a possible bill.

“Obviously we can’t delegate the decisionmaking to growers and farmworkers. But if they are able to come to agreement it may be of assistance to the Congress,” Lofgren said. 

Lofgren has indicated that she wants to pass a standalone ag labor bill that would provide a path to legal status for existing workers who are in the country illegally as well as to reform H-2A. She didn’t give a timetable for producing a bill. "We’re moving as quickly as possible," Lofgren said. "It’s April. Before we know it it will be the fall, so we would like to get moving on this."

She also wouldn’t comment on discussions she has had with the White House, where President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had been leading some work on immigration reforms, that could include agricultural labor. 

“We’ve had some contact with the White House, but I would rather not get into it at this point,” said Lofgren. 

At Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats led by Lofgren joined Republicans in expressing concern about the impact of a tight labor market on farms.

Lofgren called the issue a “matter of national security,” citing the rising amount of imported food, which she said was due at least in part to a shortage of U.S. labor. 

Rep. J. Luis Correa, D-Calif., said he wanted to "make sure that we continue to be the breadbasket of the world. We have to continue to focus on agriculture and take care of agriculture."

Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Calif., said that expanding the H-2A visa program to include year-round workers, a high priority for the dairy industry, would be “such a simple fix.”

Challenges with H-2A are a problem even in North Dakota, a state that is dominated by highly mechanized row crop production, according to GOP Rep. Kelly Armstrong. “If there is one issue I get more calls on, it’s this program,” he said. 

However, the hearing also highlighted some ongoing differences between farmers and farmworker representatives on key issues, particularly wage rates. 

Existing wage requirements in the H-2A program are tied to average agricultural wages in each state, and the H-2A rates jumped as much as 23 percent in some states this year, noted Bill Brim, a Georgia grower who testified at Wednesday’s hearing. Farm groups want to see the rules reformed. 

“Nowhere in the U.S. did wages in any occupation increase 23 percent except in the H-2A program,” Brim told lawmakers. 

Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association, told the subcommittee that reforms to H-2A must ensure that it is not “an administrative nightmare” and “doesn’t price our producers out of business.” 

But Arturo Rodriguez, former president of the United Farm Workers, and Areli Arteaga, a former farmworker whose parents both are agricultural laborers, told the subcommittee that farm wages needed to be improved. 

"We can’t expect people to go into the most difficult work there is in this nation ... and not pay them a decent wage like anybody else," he said. 

Arteaga told Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, that the single most important thing Congress could do for existing farmworkers other than providing them with legal status is to require farms to pay them overtime. 

Rodriguez and Arteaga also disagree with agricultural groups that farmworkers who are now working illegally would leave agriculture if they are given legal status. 

In his opening statement, Nassif pointedly addressed fellow farm groups as well as lawmakers in calling for a bipartisan compromise. 

“It will take statesmen and women of the highest order to find a pathway to compromise. It will take the same reasonableness on the production side,” Nassif said. 

Last year, Western Growers broke with the American Farm Bureau Federation and opposed a Republican agricultural labor bill that would have replaced H-2A with a program that would capped the number of visas annually and required workers in the country illegally to apply for visas and regularly return to their home country. The bill provided no legal status for the workers’ family members. 

Nassif told the subcommittee that there was no justification for imposing caps on agricultural labor visas because there was no economic reason for farms to hire more workers than they needed. 

USDA on Wednesday took a step aimed at making H-2A easier for farmers to use by announcing a webpage at that producers can use to start the application process. Farmers provide the date they need workers to start and then receive a checklist of steps they need to take, with links to required documents. 

(Corrects Rodriguez' title to former president.)

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