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CFBF President’s Message: Urge Congress to support agricultural workforce bill

Issue Date: November 6, 2019
Jamie Johansson

California stands strong in support of improving immigration laws to enhance the lives of agricultural employees and their families, which was apparent from the scene in the Longworth House Office Building the other day.

I was privileged to be in the House Agriculture Committee room on Capitol Hill for the introduction of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019. The bill would improve agricultural visa programs and accommodate immigrant agricultural employees already in the U.S., while assuring border security (see story).

A member of Congress from California, Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, co-authored the bill—and 12 of the bill's 43 original cosponsors are California members of Congress.

The strong showing from California testifies to the importance of this issue for our state, and to the work of your California Farm Bureau Federation in calling attention to agricultural workforce needs that affect farmers, ranchers and their employees.

Three times this decade, CFBF has surveyed our members to demonstrate the chronic problems farmers and ranchers face in finding enough qualified people to tend to California crops and livestock. Those surveys have generated a lot of attention from the news media, but also from elected officials and policy specialists.

We have leveraged that attention in advocating for reforms that address current and future workforce needs for agricultural employers and employees in California and throughout the nation. That advocacy helped bring about the bill introduced in Congress last week, which contains key solutions for current and future agricultural employees.

One fundamental goal has motivated us: We need to deal fairly with the people who now work on our farms and ranches, and with their immediate families. Our rural communities depend on them. They pay taxes and work hard in pursuit of the opportunities our nation provides. If they meet the criteria laid out in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, they should have the opportunity to seek legal status.

Through its provisions, the bill would assure existing employees who do gain legal status will continue to work in agriculture. In fact, it provides them better opportunity to move into more-responsible and supervisory positions on farms and ranches, by allowing them to earn the backstop of legal residency.

Improvements to the existing H-2A visa program contained in the bill would make it much more flexible and valuable to California farm employers and employees.

The improved program would allow future employees to migrate more easily to and from their home countries and move from farm to farm for employment through a portability option. An enhanced program to include visas for year-round employees would be especially important to dairies, nurseries and other employers that have been unable to use the H-2A program in the past.

Portability of H-2A visas represents an important change. Currently, an H-2A visa holder may work for only one employer. Being able to use the visa with more than one agricultural employer would provide valuable flexibility for both employee and employer.

The bill also addresses border security. An improved agricultural immigration system enhances border security. Activating the E-Verify employment-eligibility program for agricultural employment would be the final, necessary piece to ensure a legal workforce for agriculture—once an improved system provides for the existing workforce and for a more flexible visa program.

In California, agricultural employment totaled 420,400 in 2018, according to the state Employment Development Department, and we believe the vast majority of farm employees to be immigrants. All of us who farm—and all of us who eat—depend on their contributions to the food system. Our immigration laws must recognize and accommodate that.

And of course, that's not just a California concern, which is one reason the Farm Workforce Modernization Act drew congressional cosponsors from 19 other states.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is a bipartisan bill, with 23 Democrats and 20 Republicans—including Northern California congressman and rice farmer Doug LaMalfa—among its original cosponsors. In fact, a story in the Wall Street Journal described its introduction as "a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation."

Now, it's up to us to seize that moment. The bill will be moving through the House this month. Contact your member of Congress. If he or she already supports the bill, say thank you. If he or she has yet to commit, encourage your representative to support it.

Every member of Congress needs to hear the message: It's time to assure a stable future for California farmers, ranchers, their employees and their families.

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

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