Comprehensive immigration reform – and importantly for agriculture, the task of creating a pathway to legal status for many undocumented farm workers – will gain a brighter spotlight next week as House leadership is expected to release a set of reform principles.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is expected to release a draft proposal dealing with border security, visa issues, and other thorny immigration topics ahead of the Jan. 29 Republican retreat. Boehner has said he would not enter negotiations from the vantage point of bill passed by the Senate, and so far has encouraged a piecemeal approach to immigration with the support of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

In June, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Agricultural Guestworker Act (H.R. 1773), which addressed the undocumented workers issue. The bill, authored by Goodlatte, would replace the existing H-2A agricultural visa program with a new H-2C program - but without a path to legal status. The bill would allow up to 500,000 temporary agricultural laborers into the U.S. each year. The visa would allow workers to stay in the country for up to 18 months, as opposed to the maximum of one year issued to H-2A visa holders. Goodlatte’s committee also approved a separate bill mandating the use of an Internet-based system called E-Verify to check on a potential employee’s immigration status. The bill has not been brought up for a floor vote.

By contrast, the Senate-passed bill (S. 744) would allow undocumented farm workers to become eligible for an immigrant visa status called a “blue card.” Blue-card holders could apply for lawful permanent resident status after five years if they have continued to work in agriculture, paid their taxes and paid a fine. The Democratic-backed legislation would mandate use of E-Verify by all employers, including farming operations, within five years.

Many observers, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Council of Farmers Cooperatives (NCFC), are expecting the House to move on legislation before the Memorial Day recess this spring. In addition, lawmakers have been routinely taking to the House floor and the Senate floor to press for movement.

Maria Machuca, communications director of the United Farm Workers (UFW), said her organization is glad the House Republican leadership is “realizing they can’t ignore this situation anymore.”

“What are they going to do?” Machuca asked. “I’m not sure if they’ll take our ag proposal.” UFW and NCFC were instrumental in striking a deal on farm workers in the Senate bill. Machuca said her organization will continue national demonstrations about the issue, and will step up efforts to press GOP lawmakers to move on legislation.


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