Written by David Castellon
For years, politicians and business leaders have wanted reforms to U.S. immigration laws, but the growing rift between political parties has long stalled those efforts.
That may change soon, at least on a small scale.
Despite the particularly heated dispute now going on between Democrats and Republicans over efforts to impeach President Donald Trump, last week Congress passed an immigration bill that stops short of revamping major portions of our immigration laws but rather offers changes focused on the law as it applies to one narrow group — farm workers.
House Resolution 5038, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, passed the House on Dec. 11 with 260 “yes” votes — 34 of them from Republicans who included the Valley’s Rep. Devin Nunes, who also was a co-sponsor — versus 165 “no” votes, with fellow Republican Kevin McCarthy in that group.
Many in the farm industry say the bill is desperately needed, as their ability to hire sufficient numbers of the ag laborers they need has been curtailed by fewer undocumented immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, coming into the U.S. seeking work, in part due to tighter boarder security.
There have been reports of some undocumented people already here not seeking ag jobs over fears they may be targeted in Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, as the White House cracks down on undocumented immigrants.
“For many farm operations of all sizes, there has been no guarantee that there would be enough workers to meet the needs of the many commodities that rely on a stable workforce. Farmers have long found it is next to impossible to hire domestic workers who are citizens of the U.S., even as wages increase. Because of the failings of the nation’s immigration system and through no fault of their own, workers with fraudulent documents make up more than half of the existing workforce,” in the ag industry, states an email from the California Farm Bureau Federation issued ahead of last week’s House vote, urging farmers to encourage their congressional representatives to vote yes.
It goes on to say that the bill would “would allow experienced workers to gain agricultural worker legal status, after paying a fine and ensuring they have not committed a crime. Additionally, the bill makes significant reforms to the H-2A agricultural visa program to streamline it and make it more cost effective for farmers. The program would open to dairies and nurseries and offer a plan to allow workers to move from farm to farm, helping small and mid-size growers who have not been able to access H-2A.”
Specifically, the bill would offer work visas to undocumented immigrants who have worked at least 1,035 hours in agricultural jobs — just under 130 days, based on eight-hour work days — while continually having been in the U.S. within the two years dating back from Nov. 19 of this year.
The workers also would have to pass background checks to qualify.
Once workers receive Certified Agricultural Worker (CAW) status, they would have legal work status in the U.S. for five-and-a-half years, and the Department of Homeland Security could extend that time as well as give CAW status to the spouses and children of the accepted workers.
In addition, a summary of 5038 sates, “A CAW alien (and dependents) may apply for lawful permanent resident status after meeting various requirements, including performing a certain amount of agricultural labor for a number of years.”’
A second provision of the bill would revise the federal H-2A program, an existing guest-worker program allowing a limited numbers of visas to be awarded to foreign farm and ranch laborers to come into the U.S. to work jobs and go home to their native countries when they have gaps in their work.
H-2A hasn’t worked well in California, mostly because most commodities here are specialty crops that need to be worked only for short portions of the year, unlike many Midwest crops that are worked most of the year.
As such, farmers here have found it cost prohibitive to house H-2A workers for such short periods, and the process to bring in H-2A workers here often has been so complicated that on many farms here, the work seasons already had begun by the times work visas were secured.
Among several changes that would come if the bill becomes law include reducing the paperwork involved in requesting H-2A visas; allowing visas for year-round ag work — particularly important for the dairy industry, which would receive more than half of the visas — and creating a pilot program that would grant these workers “portable status,” so workers could leave their jobs and have up to 60 days to find new, qualifying ag jobs, allowing them to keep their visas.
The bill also would direct DHS to develop an online system to allow ag operations to verify employees’ identities and work authorizations, similar to the e-Verify system now used to verify workers’ legal status to work here.
Work on the bill started in earnest 11 months ago when various groups representing the agricultural industry across the country, along with the United Farm Workers, the union representing ag laborers, and some congressional delegates were invited by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, “to try and craft a bill that narrowly focused on agriculture and its workforce,” said Ian LeMay, CEO and president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, a nonprofit advocating for California growers of 13 fresh fruit commodities on policy matters in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
His organization was among the group offering input on the bill Lofgren introduced — with no riders — last month.
“Especially in these political times, it was very bipartisan,” he said of the final congressional vote.
LeMay noted that the farmers he represents depend heavily on hand labor and have been hit hard by the current “tightening in the [ag] labor market. Fewer and fewer people are coming out to apply for our open positions, even with a rising wage.”
In addition, he said making H-2A a more affordable and business-friendly program — along with adding worker mobility — might prompt more ag operations to use the program.
“I think the groups that were part of the negotiations are happy with the product we came up with, and we’re happy it passed through the House.”
Diana Tellefson-Torres, executive director of the UFW Foundation, said UFW has been working on developing legislation to legalize undocumented farm workers for nearly two decades, and any immigration legislation the union advocates includes citizenship programs for workers and their families already in the U.S.
“This would provide a path to permanent residence of the workers who have already worked for agriculture and the opportunity to really earn that legal status,” said Tellefson-Torres, estimating the bill could affect 1.2 million undocumented ag workers across the U.S., about a half million of them in California.
So this is an opportunity for ag laborers, many highly skilled at their jobs, to continue doing them, she added.
As for the votes against the bill, McCarthy reportedly issued a statement citing his fundamental concerns with how the bill addresses illegal immigration, giving undocumented immigrants pathways to citizenship without penalties.
The bill currently is before the Senate, which could decide not to vote or could vote on the bill as is or develop a modified version.
Seeing as Republicans in the House mostly were against pushing 5038 forward, it’s not clear if the Republican-majority Senate and the Republican president might approve it, at least in its current form, despite about 300 ag industry businesses and associations having announced their support of the legislation.
For her part, Tellefson-Torres said the fact the bill passed with bipartisan support in the House puts it in a good position to get through the Senate.
“Our compromise that we’ve come up with here is a compromise that would certainly benefit those growers throughout the country — those employers — and farm workers. And the fact they are coming together to push something forward is impactful.”