Bill to Legalize Undocumented Farmworkers Introduced

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that changes are needed to H-2A visa program

By Roy Maurer May 16, 2017

​A group of Democratic senators recently filed legislation that would protect the country's undocumented farmworkers from deportation and put them on a path to citizenship.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced the Agricultural Worker Program Act, which would provide a "blue card" to undocumented farmworkers who have worked in agriculture for at least 100 days over the past two years, shielding them from deportation. The bill would then permit those blue card holders to apply for a green card once they work in agriculture for either 100 days per year for the next five years or 150 days per year for the next three years. After five years with a green card, they would be eligible to apply for citizenship.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Obtaining U.S. Employment Visas]

Feinstein's proposal is similar to legislation she has championed in the past, including for provisions in the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013.

It's estimated that 90 percent of agriculture workers in California are foreign-born, and that up to 70 percent are undocumented.

"Everywhere I travel in California, I hear from farmers, growers and producers from all industries that there aren't enough workers," Feinstein said. "Farm labor is performed almost exclusively by undocumented immigrants—a fact that should surprise no one. By protecting farmworkers from deportation, our bill achieves two goals—ensuring that hardworking immigrants don't live in fear and California's agriculture industry has the workforce it needs to thrive."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, agreed in a statement that "insufficient farm labor is a legitimate issue that deserves further review" but cautioned that "any authorization for foreign agricultural workers must be structured in a way that protects American workers. It must also ensure that American workers are not displaced by foreign counterparts."

Democrats plan to introduce companion legislation in the House, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., signaled that he is currently working on legislation to overhaul the H-2A agricultural guest worker visa program. He has proposed changes to the program during past sessions of Congress.

The California Farm Bureau Federation, which promotes the interests of family farms and ranches, said it is encouraged by Feinstein's bill but that more needs to be done to address future workflow through a temporary worker visa program and H-2A reform.

"The Farm Bureau encourages President [Donald] Trump and congressional leaders from both parties to enact immigration legislation that addresses farmers' need for a legal, stable workforce," said federation president Paul Wenger in a statement.

The United Farm Workers also supports the Agricultural Worker Program Act. "Overwhelmingly, farmworkers do the hard, brutal work of feeding all of us—it is long past time that the law should allow professional farmworkers the chance to earn legal status," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers.

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