A bill to expand the H-2A farmworker visa program and provide legal status to existing agricultural employees is headed to the House floor despite strong opposition from Republicans who derided it as a “massive amnesty” measure.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the Farm Workforce Modernization Act on a voice vote after four hours of debate Wednesday, but Republicans requested a recorded vote that was delayed until Thursday. On a party-line vote, the committee advanced the bill 18-12.

The bill that was introduced by Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and 24 other Democrats and 20 Republicans, would expand the H-2A visa program and provide growers some relief on wage rates.

“I would prefer these wage concessions were not in the bill, but this bill was a compromise,” Lofgren said. “It was a compromise to make sure farmworkers today, who are looking over their shoulder in fear of deportation, will no longer face that nightmare.”

But Ken Buck, R-Colo., who chairs the Immigration and Citizenship subcommittee, said the bill opens the door to a massive amnesty.

“We’re bringing a bill to markup without the slightest idea how many individuals this bill would put on a pathway to citizenship,” Buck said during the hearing.

The committee’s ranking Republican, Doug Collins of Georgia, said the bill didn’t do enough to help farmers and also criticized the provisions for undocumented workers, a critical issue for Democrats.

Collins also said the bill shortchanges meat and poultry producers and failed to provide long-term stability for wage rate determinations.

“Growers have requested long-term wage rate relief instead of the unpredictable adverse wage rate that H-2A users are currently required to pay,” Collins said. 

Lofgren defended the path to legal status for existing workers, saying people who have worked here for many years in agriculture would be able to have an agricultural worker visa to be right with the law and pursuant with the law.

The bill will have a steep hill to climb to become law. Congress hasn’t passed H-2A reforms since 1986 when the program was created.

Newhouse, who is not a member of the Judiciary committee, told Agri-Pulse his fellow Republicans opposed to his bill should visit with farmers in their districts.

He said by doing that “they will understand this is a critical issue that needs to be solved and this bill actually provides a lot of relief to our agriculture industry.”

Newhouse continues to work with the American Farm Bureau Federation to gain their support for the bill.

“We’ve been working with them constantly to try to make the adjustments they would see necessary to get full support,” Newhouse said.

AFBF’s Allison Crittenden has said the overarching concern for the group is making sure the H-2A program would provide a sufficient number of workers, since the bill would make it mandatory for growers to verify eligibility of employees using the E-Verify system.

But not all ag groups have reservations about the bill.

Some 300 ag groups sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Monday showing support for the bill.

Early Wednesday, National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern pressed lawmakers to move forward on the legislation.

“Our dairy farmers face unique workforce challenges that require a solution from Congress,” Mulhern said.

Mulhern said advancing the legislation would be essential to have the opportunity to continue bipartisan efforts to address the labor crisis hurting dairy farms across the U.S.

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