For years we’ve advocated for legislation that would give agricultural producers and processors easier access to affordable, legal foreign workers they need to make up for the lack of domestic laborers who want to pick, pack and process foodstuffs.
A bipartisan measure introduced last week in the U.S. House of Representatives seems to fit the bill.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, H.R. 4916, has the backing of 24 Democrats and 20 Republicans, including House Agricultural Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
The bill has tentative support from nearly 250 agricultural groups and labor organizations.
Despite its importance to the country’s food supply, many U.S. citizens consider farm work to be menial. It’s certainly hard, often back-breaking work. In many cases it’s also seasonal, making the jobs less attractive.
As a result, much of the manual farm labor in the orchards, vineyards, vegetable fields, nurseries and dairies in the U.S. is performed by immigrants, mostly who are in the country illegally and who have proffered fraudulent documents to their employers.
These workers are remarkably efficient, but the reliance on what is largely an illegal workforce has been problematic for a number of reasons. And while Congress has provided a program that grants temporary visas for foreign workers, it has been made complex and inadequate due largely to the politics surrounding the immigration question.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act appears to address some of those vexing issues.
The bill establishes merit-based, five-year, renewable work visas for people in the country illegally who can show they have worked in agriculture at least 180 days over the last two years. They must work in agriculture 100 days a year to be eligible for indefinite renewals and will be able to cross the border whenever they want.
The bill allows those workers a path to permanent legal status.
The bill also dedicates an additional 40,000 green cards per year for agricultural workers and allows H-2A workers to apply directly for green cards after working in the U.S. 10 years.
Temporary three-year visas would be allowed for year-round dairy and non-dairy jobs.
It phases in mandatory use of the E-Verify system, a big step in ensuring a legal workforce.
The bill prevents increases in the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) minimum wage for H-2A workers through 2020. It prevents the AEWR from increasing more than 3.25% or decrease by more than 1.5% in 2021 through 2029. Still too much for some, but a start.
It makes the H-2A visa process less complicated and more employer friendly. Farm interests say these provisions don’t go far enough, but we think it’s a good start on which more can be built if the bill progresses to the Republican Senate.
The big question now is whether a sensible piece of bipartisan legislation has a chance of passing with an election but a year away, particularly with Washington’s highly charged political climate.
We hope so.