The House on Thursday passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act for the second time in less than two years as Democrats look to prod the Senate into acting on immigration reforms.
The ag labor bill, which was approved 247-174 with 30 Republican votes, would provide a path to legal status for undocumented workers, reform the H-2A program and require farms to start using the E-Verify system to ensure new hires can legally work. A previous version got 34 GOP votes in December 2019 but was never considered in the Senate.
“The bill honors the millions of farmworkers who are the backbone of our economy, quietly persevering through harsh working conditions and low wages as they power the farm economy and put food on our table,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Although the bill has the support of many farm groups, including the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the Western Growers Association and the National Milk Producers Federation, it still appears to be a long shot in the Senate.
The House also passed a second bill, 228-197, that would provide a path to citizenship to Dreamers, immigrants who came into the United States illegally before they were 19.
Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who is sponsoring President Joe Biden's comprehensive immigration proposal, suggested the House bills could be included in a larger bill, describing the two measures as "drivers of the conversation" about immigration policy.
But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters that it would be difficult to pass a major immigration bill this year even though Democrats control the chamber. "I'm reaching out on the Republican side. Many of them have said they are focused on the southern border. And I think that has to be part of the conversation," Durbin told reporters.
Key Senate Republicans said that immigration legislation was unlikely to get GOP support without better border security. “Why would you legalize anybody, sending another incentive to keep coming, until you stop the flow?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked reporters rhetorically. Graham is a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of the Gang of Eight senators who negotiated a compromise immigration bill in 2013 that died in the House, then controlled by Republicans.
On Thursday, House Republicans denounced the two bills for offering legal status to undocumented ag workers amid the surge of migrants at the southern border.
Rep. Victoria Spartz, an Indiana Republican who immigrated from Ukraine to the United States in 2000, dismissed the bill as a political stunt. “We are policymakers and we are legislators, and we are to work on policy, not political drama,” she said.
Other Republicans argued that the newly legalized workers would unfairly compete with American citizens for jobs off the farm.
“No one disputes that this is a huge win for big agriculture,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said of the FWMA. “The problem is that it comes at the expense of American workers.”
But Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, denied that the bill amounted to giving “amnesty” to workers who had broken the law to get their farm jobs. “It’s about providing a legal stable workforce for the people who put food on our tables,” he said.
The bill, which is co-sponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., would streamline the H-2A application process while reforming the process of setting the regionally-based minimum wage rates that farms are required to pay.
Interested in more coverage and insights? Receive a free month of Agri-Pulse West.
The wage rates would be frozen for one year; increases would be capped for most of the country at 3.25% for the following nine years.
To address the demand for year-round workers, the bill would provide 20,000 year-round visas a year while allowing for an increase or decrease depending on demand. Additional provisions could help farms build new housing and renovate existing units.
Existing workers who are in the country illegally could get temporary legal status if they have worked in agriculture for at least 180 days over the last two years, and that status could be renewed indefinitely with continued farm work.
Farmworkers could earn a green card by paying a $1,000 fine and continuing to work on farms for an additional period, depending on how long they've already been in the United States: Workers with at least 10 years of U.S. ag experience would have to continue for four more; workers with less than 10 years of experience would have to work for eight more
The American Farm Bureau Federation has declined to support it, arguing in part that a provision in the bill would make farms vulnerable to lawsuits by H-2A workers.
President Joe Biden tweeted his support for the bill during the House debate: “Undocumented farm workers feed America and have been on the frontlines of this pandemic making sure we have food on our tables. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act provides a path to citizenship for these essential workers. I urge Congress to pass the bill."
For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.