Congressional Democrats introduced a sweeping immigration bill backed by President Joe Biden that would require farms to start paying overtime and provide an expedited path to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers.
The 353-page measure, which is built on Biden’s immigration reform plan and called the U.S. Citizenship Act, all but eliminates an exemption for farms from federal overtime and minimum wage requirements that is in current law. Family members would continue to be exempt.
The bill doesn’t include any reforms to expand or replace the H-2A visa program for foreign farmworkers. Year-round work is ineligible for H-2A.
The legislation includes a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, including special provisions for agricultural workers that would make them immediately eligible for permanent resident status and a three-year path to citizenship.
Most other illegal immigrants, with the exception of Dreamers and refugees with temporary protected status, would be required to wait eight years for citizenship.
Farm groups support the legalization of existing workers but want to keep the existing overtime exemption and also have been pushing for expansion of the H-2A program. Without increased access to foreign labor, there is concern that newly legalized workers would leave agriculture for other jobs, leaving farmers strapped for labor.
Sponsors of the bill acknowledged that it would be difficult to find enough Republican support to pass a broad immigration bill. At least 10 Republican votes would be needed to get it through the Senate under normal procedures. That means sponsors could try to pass the most popular elements, including legalization of Dreamers, people who were brought to the country illegally as children.
Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, said the bill's introduction makes clear "that immigration legislation is a significant, immediate priority. Still, reforms to our immigration system must include changes crucial for the dairy workforce. These include extending to current workers and their families the legal protections they have earned and enabling dairy farmers to use a guest worker program to supplement their domestic workforce when needed."
Dairy producers especially interested in expanding H-2A to year-around labor.
Bruce Goldstein, president of the advocacy group Farmworker Justice, said the citizenship provisions for farmworkers and their immediate family members “would begin to address the many unfair barriers that farmworkers experience in their living and working conditions.”
He also praised the bill's provisions for rolling back overtime and minimum wage exemptions. Vice President Kamala Harris introduced the overtime and minimum requirements as a senator in 2019 as part of her Fairness for Farmworkers Act.
Farm groups have long opposed being required to pay overtime, something now mandated in California. ”Early word out of California is that employers are responding to the practical economic inability to pay overtime by limiting hours. That hurts the producer and the workforce,” said Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of advocacy and research for AmericanHort, which represents greenhouse growers.
The bill's lead Senate sponsor, Robert Menendez, D-N.J., didn’t rule out taking the bill apart and passing elements as part of an infrastructure bill that Democrats may try to pass using the budget reconciliation process. Reconciliation bills only require a simple majority to pass the Senate but provisions must have an impact on federal spending and revenues.
“We are not foreclosing any pathway into which we can achieve robust immigration reform,” Menendez said.
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