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New Bill Would Legalize Undocumented Farmworkers

Agricultural visa program reforms, E-Verify requirement included

Two women standing next to a tractor in an apple orchard.

​Lawmakers reintroduced the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a comprehensive proposal that would lay out a path to legal status for undocumented farmworkers, reform the H-2A visa program to provide more flexibility for employers and require nationwide E-Verify use for all agricultural employment once legalization has been phased in.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., announced the bill March 3. Similar legislation passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support in December 2019.

"The men and women who work America's farms feed the nation. But many of them do so while living and working in a state of uncertainty and fear, which has only been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic," Lofgren said. "Stabilizing the workforce will protect the future of our farms and our food supply. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act accomplishes this by providing a path to legal status for farmworkers and updating and streamlining the H-2A temporary worker visa program while ensuring fair wages and working conditions for all workers."

Newhouse added that "American agriculture is desperately in need of a legal, reliable workforce. Bringing our agriculture labor program into the 21st century is absolutely critical as we work to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and ensure a stable food supply chain in the United States."

The bill:

  • Establishes a program for immigrant agricultural workers and their spouses to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment. The legal status—for those who have worked at least 180 days in agriculture over the last two years—is temporary but could be renewed indefinitely with continued farm work. Long-term workers who want to stay in the United States would be eligible for green cards.
  • Reforms the H-2A visa program by making it more user-friendly for employers; modifying wages to "better reflect real-world wages;" providing thousands of visas for year-round industries; improving the availability of farmworker housing; establishing more oversight over foreign labor recruiters; and creating a pilot program to facilitate the free movement and employment of up to 10,000 H-2A workers with registered agricultural employers.
  • Implements a mandatory, nationwide E-Verify employment eligibility verification system for all farmworkers, to be phased in after the legalization and H-2A reforms have been put in place.

"This serves as the last necessary piece to ensure a legal workforce for the agricultural sector," Lofgren said.

The bill has garnered support from over 300 agriculture organizations, including the United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers and the California Farm Bureau.

"The Farm Workforce Modernization Act earned bipartisan support [in 2019] by addressing both current and future needs for agricultural employers and employees," said California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson. "Its passage would improve agricultural visa programs and accommodate immigrant agricultural employees already in the United States, while enhancing border security. The pandemic has only underscored the importance of assuring the people who work on farms and ranches can do so with the security of legal immigration status," he said.

Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia said that the legislation addresses two critical needs: a mechanism to ensure that farming employers can retain existing, experienced workers, and that the H-2A visa program can provide a reliable future flow of workers. The organization represents family farmers in California and the Southwest.

Jim Bair, the president and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association, said that the nation's apple industry relies heavily on foreign-born labor. "Each year, growers coast-to-coast face uncertainty as to whether there will be sufficient labor to harvest the crop," he said. "The bill brings needed modernization and cost containment to the H-2A agricultural guest-worker program."

Providing more year-round visas is one of the more attractive provisions of the proposal to National Pork Producers Council President Jen Sorenson. "The U.S. pork industry is suffering from a serious labor shortage, negatively impacting farms and processing plants," she said. "Unfortunately, the current H-2A visa program is designed for seasonal agriculture, ignoring the needs of U.S. pork producers and other year-round livestock farmers."

The Way Forward

The House announced that it will vote this month on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and another bill creating a pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers" and those with temporary protected status.

The two bills were selected due to their bipartisan support. They were extracted from the recently introduced U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, a comprehensive immigration reform package backed by President Joe Biden, but which faces an uphill battle in Congress.


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