WASHINGTON, May 16, 2013 - The House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security today heard testimony challenging legislation that would create a new guest worker program and cap the number of visas available to farm workers at 500,000.

Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., introduced late last month the Agricultural Guestworkers Act (H.R. 1773), which would provide new H-2C visas under the operation of  USDA, the Homeland Security Department, and the State Department. Currently, the Labor Department oversees most visa programs.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee continued its markup of a comprehensive immigration reform package (S. 744), which contains changes to the farm worker program and to the federal work verification program, E-Verify.

Goodlatte said that under his bill, a grower designated as a registered agricultural employer by USDA would be able to easily hire guest workers already admitted to the United States without having to file an additional petition for the individual worker.

While the bill sets a 500,000-visa cap on farm workers, the agriculture secretary would have the authority to raise or lower the cap. In addition, the bill would eliminate the current wage rate floors and replace it with the prevailing wage rate or the state minimum wage, whichever is higher.

Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers of America, told lawmakers that “our broken immigration system threatens our nation’s food supply,” forcing farm workers “to work in the shadows of society in difficult working conditions” and making farms face greater challenges in “hiring a legal workforce.”

He said H.R. 1773 “falls far short of the challenge that faces American agriculture” and “bears a much closer resemblance to the horrific Bracero program of the 1940s-1960s” – an initiative under which the United States imported workers from Mexico – “than it does to the immigration program changes we need for the 21st Century.”

By replacing the existing H-2A agricultural temporary worker program with a new H-2C program, farm workers would be deprived of jobs “by minimizing the recruitment obligations of employers, slashing wages and withholding 10 percent of a worker’s wages,” Rodriguez said. “It would also minimize government oversight, limit workers access to judicial relief and legal assistance, and reduce temporary workers’ minimum-work guarantee.”

The farm worker leader also said Goodlatte’s bill would eliminate the requirement that employers provide housing for temporary workers and U.S. workers who travel to the worksite and eliminate travel-expense reimbursement for temporary workers.

But Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association and a member of the board for USA Farmers, the nation’s largest organization representing agricultural guest worker employers, said Goodlatte’s bill offers “measured reforms” that “go a long way towards solving the most onerous flaws in H-2A. He said the current visa program for farm workers is expensive, overly bureaucratic, unnecessarily litigious, and excludes some farms and activities.

“This proposal is evidence the U.S. can have a workable farmworker program that treats workers well and carefully balances the critical elements of worker protections, while promoting economic viability,” Wicker said.

The bill gives U.S. workers preferential consideration by requiring farmers to solicit and hire U.S. workers through the local employment service for 30 days before jobs begin - prior to any foreign worker being employed. The provision drew debate among subcommittee members over questions of whether U.S. citizens want the farm worker jobs.

The committee earlier heard testimony on another Goodlatte measure, the Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 1772), which expands and makes mandatory the E-Verify system, an online system currently used voluntarily by some 450,000 employers that aims to insure the residential eligibility of newly hired employees.

Goodlatte told the subcommittee that the “future of immigration reform hinges on assuring the American people that our immigration laws will be enforced.” He said his E-Verify measure will “prevent unlawful immigrants from getting jobs in the U.S.,” therefore discourage illegal immigration. He said the program “is a reliable and fast way for employers to electronically check the work eligibility of newly hired employees,” citing a reported 99.7 percent accuracy rate for confirmation of work eligibility.

Subcommittee ranking member Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said broader immigration reform was needed before an enforcement bill is enacted. Without a comprehensive overhaul of the way those coming into the country are monitored and brought into the workforce, “expanding E-Verify will devastate the U.S. agricultural industry.”

The full committee’s ranking member, John Conyers, D-N.Y., agreed, stating that between 50 and 75 percent of all farm workers are undocumented. Expressing concerns over the scope of a mandatory E-Verify program under current policy, he said, “Losing these workers would be devastating for agriculture.”

Lofgren did say H.R. 1772 was an improvement over similar legislation introduced in the last Congress, citing the removal of provisions that would have exempted returning seasonal employees and imposed what she called “excessive” criminal penalties.

But Lofgren said the bill fails to provide “meaningful due process” for legal workers who are found in violation due to error.

The bill would repeal the current paper-based I-9 system and replace it completely with the electronic work eligibility check. The measure phases-in mandatory E-Verify participation for new hires in six month increments, beginning on the date of enactment, with the number of increments depending upon the number of each business’ employees. Employees performing “agricultural labor or services” would only be subject to an E-Verify check within 24 months of the date of enactment.

Goodlatte’s bill would also grant employers a safe harbor from prosecution if they use the E-Verify program in good faith, and through no fault of theirs, receive an incorrect eligibility confirmation.

The much larger Senate bill, which seeks to create a pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented people and farm workers, would establish a new “blue card” program for experienced farm workers, and a new version of the current agricultural worker visa program.

Also, farmers would have five years from enactment of the legislation to comply with a provision mandating use of E-Verify.

In the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, offered an amendment to reduce the mandatory requirement to 18 months from enactment of the bill.

The amendment failed on a 5-13 vote. The committee is expected to resume its deliberations on May 20.


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