The Democratic-controlled House approved a bill Wednesday to expand the H-2A visa program to year-round farmworkers and provide growers relief from wage hikes, but the broad GOP opposition underscored the challenge of getting Congress to address the agricultural labor squeeze. 

The 260-165 vote for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act marked the biggest step by Congress to reform H-2A since a major immigration reform bill passed the Senate in 2013. But only 34 Republicans voted for the House ag labor bill, which opponents said would unfairly provide a legal status to farmworkers who were currently in the country illegally. One Democrat voted present. The White House hasn’t taken a public position on the bill, and a spokesman declined to comment.

Ahead of the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., went to the floor to make an unusual, personal appeal to colleagues to support the bill, which was supported by many major farm groups as well as the United Farm Workers.

“It is bipartisan and it is important for us to pass it,” she said, calling the measure “an historic victory for farmworkers and for growers, which will ensure that America can continue to feed the world.”

The bill would, for the first time, expand H-2A from being just a seasonal program - year-round workers would be eligible for a three-year visa under a special new, capped program - and the legislation would impose a one-year freeze on H-2A wage rates and cap increases in future years. 

The bill also would mandate that farms begin using the E-Verify to check the eligibility of new employees. 

GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Washington farmer and former state agriculture secretary, said the bill would “go a long way toward providing certainty for our ag industry.”

But groups that advocate for restricting immigration opposed the bill. The Heritage Foundation said it “would bless the actions of aliens and agricultural employers who have ignored the law.” Republican opponents of the bill complained that it would allow people who had worked part-time for less than two years in agriculture to qualify for legal status.

“This bill will allow people to get amnesty. They will leave agriculture, and they will go into another industry,” said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla.

Under the legislation, undocumented farm employees that are given legal status to continue working in agriculture could eventually apply for permanent U.S. residency if they maintain farm employment for four to eight years. 

Opponents also seized on a provision that would allow H-2A workers to sue farms in federal court. 

“H-2A users have asked Congress for many reforms of the H-2A program. Unfortunately, despite its proponents’ claims, H.R. 5038 doesn’t fix many of the issues with the program, and, in some cases, the bill makes the problems worse,” said Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. 

Just five of the 21 Republican members of the House Agriculture Committee ultimately voted for the bill: Jim Baird of Indiana, Mike Bost and Rodney Davis of Illinois, Doug LaMalfa of California and Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania

Divisions within agriculture didn’t help win over GOP support. 

The bill was supported by about 300 national, state and local farm groups, including the National Council of Agricultural Employers, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Farmers Union, National Milk Producers Federation, United Fresh Produce Federation and Western Growers Association.

But the largest farm organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation, declined to support it, saying it didn’t do enough to reform the H-2A wage requirements and would make H-2A workers eligible for coverage under the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act, allowing those employees to sue farms for allegedly unfair treatment. AFBF's California affiliate, the California Farm Bureau Federation, broke from their national organization to support the bill. 

In a statement issued after the vote, AFBF President Zippy Duvall said the organization would turn its attention to the Senate. “At a time when the farm worker shortage has reached a crisis in parts of the country, it is deeply disappointing that the House blocked any possibility of improving the legislation designed to address the problem, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Several amendments addressed our principal concerns, but were blocked from consideration."

The bill would impose a one-year freeze in 2020 for H-2A wage rates and then limit annual fluctuations. Starting in 2021 and continuing through 2029, H-2A wage rates generally couldn’t fall by more than 1.5% or increase by more than 3.25% annually. Wage rates would rise by an additional percentage point if the rate is less than 10% above the federal or state minimum wage. 

The program's “adverse effect wage rates,” or AEWR, set a floor for what farms typically have to pay the workers based on prevailing regional wages for farm labor.

The bill also includes provisions, borrowed from a Trump administration proposal, to provide differing wage rates for various occupations. Some workers such as machine operators would see higher wages, while field workers could see decreases.

Former House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said earlier this week that he had been leaning in support of the bill but that constituents were complaining about fixing agriculture labor issues without addressing other sectors. “If you can't put the whole package together it's hard sometimes to move even an important piece,” he said. 

Dairy producers, who would be the biggest beneficiary of the year-round visas, welcomed the bill. 

“Agricultural labor reform is long overdue. With today’s action it is now imperative that the Senate act to fully address the needs of dairy farmers and all of agriculture, helping farmers do what they do best: feed our nation, and the world," said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation.

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