WASHINGTON, Sept. 15– The House Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), began its formal consideration of H.R. 2164, the Legal Workforce Act, on Thursday. The legislation would require employers to submit names and Social Security numbers of new workers through an electronic database for verification.
“It makes no sense to rely on the paper-based, error-prone I-9 system when a successful web-based program is available…that could open up millions of jobs for unemployed Americans,” Smith said at the start of the markup.
Nearly 290,000 businesses voluntarily use the program and another 1,300 new businesses sign up each week, he added.
Agricultural interests, who prefer a comprehensive immigration reform package, have expressed concern that Smith’s legislation ignores the unique needs of the farm sector. They point to what happened this summer following enactment of mandatory E-Verify legislation in Georgia: a shortage of workers and crops rotting in the fields.
“The Legal Workforce Act continues to disregard the potential impact this business mandate will have on our members and could stifle a vibrant and competitive fresh produce industry in this country,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of United Fresh, an industry trade group.
“We continue to insist that, as Congress moves forward with this legislation, it must incorporate a workable and efficient agricultural guest worker program.”
Smith counters that ag employers would be given three years to comply with the E-Verify requirement and the provisions do not apply to current, seasonal farm workers, only future employees.
He does acknowledge the need for a legal foreign labor supply in the specialty crop industry. Smith said that’s why he introduced a separate measure known as the American Specialty Agricultural Act. It would provide up to 500,000 visas for legal ag workers.
It’s unclear if Smith’s backing for a new agriculture guest worker program will be enough to win over a sufficient number of Judiciary Committee Republicans to pass E-Verify given that Democrats remain united in their opposition to it.
The Legal Workforce Act “would impose crippling costs on small businesses, the engine of job creation in America, just when we need those businesses to create jobs the most,” argued Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California.
The markup will resume Wednesday.
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