Immigration: Congressmen introduce bills on farm labor


Issue Date: September 14, 2011
By Steve Adler

With Congress preparing to act on additional verification standards for the work status of employees, two new proposals seek to allow more people to enter the United States legally from other countries to work on farms. One bill would revise the existing H-2A agricultural worker program. The other would create a new visa category for foreign agricultural workers.

Farm organizations say the bills reflect acknowledgement from key members of Congress that agricultural employment is different from other sectors of the economy, and that any new verification requirements must be accompanied by programs that assure farmers of a legal work force.

"We've said all along that border security is important, but at the same time Congress must recognize the fact that most of the people who work on farms come from outside the U.S.," California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said. "Farmers want to hire people we know have entered the country legally. The introduction of these two bills shows that we've gotten the attention of Congress."

Now, Wenger said, farmers and agricultural organizations will need to be vigilant, to make sure that any E-Verify legislation passed by Congress addresses the needs of California farmers. Either of the newly introduced bills could be added to existing E-Verify legislation.

One of the bills, the American Specialty Agriculture Act by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, would modify the existing federal H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program in ways that Smith says would be responsive to the needs of American specialty growers.

CFBF Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little said that while Smith acknowledges the need for large numbers of foreign agricultural workers on U.S. farms and ranches, his proposal still relies on the H-2A program, which has proven unworkable for most California farmers.

"This bill is basically a remodeling of the H-2A program," Little said. "H-2A is broken. It can be improved to work a little bit better for people who are already using it, but the vast majority of agricultural employers in California and across the country cannot use it because they don't have employee housing, there are significant delays in getting workers here, and a host of other reasons."

The existing program, with its bureaucratic requirements imposed by three different federal agencies, could not provide the hundreds of thousands of foreign employees that would be needed on California farms, Little said, even with the changes proposed in the Smith bill.

"The problem is immense and it is hard to imagine that Smith's proposal, if adopted, would be able to process workers and applications in time for farmers to get employees on the ground in time to harvest crops where the need is extremely time-sensitive," he said.

The other bill, the Legal Agricultural Workforce Act of 2011 by Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, would create a new "W" visa category for foreign agricultural workers and allow for their admission to the United States for 10 months in any 12-month period.

Lungren's bill has more elements that are acceptable to CFBF and other agricultural groups, Little said. For example, it would allow workers to move freely among employers who are certified by USDA to employ workers in the program, and allow agricultural employers to employ workers at market wage rates, including market-rate worker benefits.

But it also contains provisions that are cause for concern, Little said, particularly one that would allow foreign workers to work in the U.S. for only 10 months of the year. This would be particularly problematic in year-round agricultural operations such as dairies, he said.

Smith's bill is slated for discussion this week in the Immigration Subcommittee of the House Labor Committee. Lungren's bill is scheduled to be introduced into the House this week as well.

Paul Schlegel, director of immigration reform for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said AFBF has taken no position on either bill.

"They are both good-faith efforts to address our problems and we want to work with any interested member in building on either or both of those bills as a way to solve agriculture's problems," Schlegel said.

The introduction of two agricultural worker programs is being driven by possible consideration of Smith's E-Verify bill, H.R. 2164, which could also surface during this week's subcommittee meeting, according to Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, of which CFBF is a member.

He said he expects action on E-Verify in the next two weeks, calling this "a very dynamic time."

CFBF and other farm organizations have long contended that if the E-Verify mandatory electronic employment verification system is to be implemented, it must also be accompanied by programs to enable an adequate foreign work force to enter the United States legally to take the agricultural jobs that domestic workers have shown no interest in doing.

"E-Verify legislation that does not include language providing for an agricultural worker program will be a disaster for American farmers and ranchers," Wenger said. "Farmers have proven time and again, coordinating with welfare-to-work programs, employment development departments and others, that American-born workers cannot fill the entire demand of on-farm jobs. If E-Verify passes without an avenue to secure legally documented employees, farmers will be left without a reliable work force."

Schlegel of the American Farm Bureau also emphasized that an effective agricultural worker program must be incorporated into any bill that mandates E-Verify for agriculture.

Little said it is important for farmers and ranchers to communicate their concerns to their elected representatives in Congress. Little will join representatives of agricultural organizations from across the U.S. who will be in Washington, D.C., this week to attend the subcommittee meeting on Smith's bill and to meet with other elected officials.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.