A migrant worker picks tomatoes on a farm in Fort Blackmore, Virginia, where all of the laborers are H2A workers from Mexico. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World, used under the CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

An unlikely mix of opposition from anti-immigrant conservatives and pro-immigration rights advocates killed an attempted rewrite of immigration policy related to agricultural “guest workers” last week.

The organizing and activism from two distinct sides of the political spectrum seemed to stall the legislation, which had been expected to be approved by the House Judiciary Committee.

Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte’s (R-Virginia) proposal had significant support from agribusiness groups such as the Farm Bureau and the National Milk Producers Federation. The agribusiness groups, along with many Republicans, are seeking increased numbers and expanded work periods for immigrants that could be hired legally as agricultural labor.

As reported by Bloomberg News, anti-immigration groups pressured members to oppose the bill. The committee had planned to mark-up the draft legislation, but found that the votes to send the bill to the House for consideration were “just not there,” according to an “agricultural advocate” who asked not be identified.

But anti-immigrant conservatives who think the bill is too lax were not the only ones opposing the proposal. Also speaking against the bill have been liberal groups that think any change in the temporary ag worker visa program needs to include a path to citizenship.

Goodlatte’s legislative proposal sought to replace the current H-2A immigrant guestworker program with a new H-2C visa program that would have:

  • Moved program administration to the U. S. Department of Agriculture
  • Increased the time allowed by the visa to 36 months
  • Increased the number of agricultural guestworkers
  • Removed mandates that require host employers to pay for transportation and housing

Organizations in favor of strict limitations on immigration like the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) said the H-2C bill “allows for a specialized semi-amnesty for illegal aliens now working illegally in U.S. agriculture. They can convert themselves, presumably after the most sketchy of screenings, to H-2C workers.”

NumbersUSA, another group seeking limits on the number of U. S. immigrants, reported opposition to the bill for granting, “an amnesty to illegal aliens currently working in agriculture,” as well as exemptions from payroll tax liabilities for employers that hire immigrant agricultural workers.

Organizations that support farmworker rights said the changes would worsen conditions for both citizens and temporary workers.

“Instead of taking steps to stabilize the existing experienced, productive workforce through a path to citizenship for current undocumented farmworkers, Goodlatte’s bill would substitute one third-class status for another by seeking to convert undocumented workers into subjugated contract laborers,” stated Farmworker Justice President Bruce Goldstein. “Rep. Goodlatte’s proposed H-2C visa program deserves no serious consideration.”

The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) urged their members to ask their Representatives to oppose the Goodlatte H-2C plan, saying the legislation would, “deprive US citizens and lawful permanent residents of job opportunities. It does this by weakening the laws that require U.S. citizens and legal residents to be offered these jobs first. The bill expands access to guestworkers for even more employers, such as those in year-round processing. It would also lower farm workers’ already poor wages and allow exploitative conditions for hundreds of thousands of new guestworkers,” the organization said.

As previously reported in the Daily Yonder, farmers have turned to two controversial sources for needed agricultural labor: hiring undocumented immigrants and utilizing the existing H-2A visa program that allows immigrants to work for a specific farm for up to 10 months before returning home. Administered by the Department of Labor, the H-2A program provides temporary visas to immigrant farm laborers for periods of 10-months or less. H-2A visas tie a worker to a specific farm or labor organization for the season, and then workers return to their native country, usually Mexico.

Farmworker Justice, using USDA and Department of Labor statistics, estimates that there are 2.5 million farmworkers laboring on our nation’s farms and ranches. Though the data is imperfect due to the difficulty of collecting information from undocumented immigrants, the organization estimates that roughly 1.2 million to 1.75 million farmworkers are undocumented and approximately 750,000 to 1.3 million farmworkers are United States citizens or lawful immigrants. The National Agriculture Worker Survey finds that about 33% of farmworkers are United States citizens, 18% are lawful permanent residents and another 1% have other work authorization.

The H-2A guestworker system, as it exists, is criticized by both agribusiness interests seeking labor and farmworker groups. Farmers said that program is overly bureaucratic, and the administrative burden can lead to workers arriving too late for their seasonal labor needs. Livestock producers, whose animals require daily labor rather than seasonal demands, criticize the program for not allowing a year-round labor option. Farmworker groups don’t believe that H-2A system adequately protects worker rights, and that H-2A workers are burdened with excessive fees and predatory debts for navigating the guestworker visa paperwork and transportation process.

As the Goodlatte proposal to change the H-2A Program awaits committee action, Democrats and farmworker groups have proposed their own reform package, the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2017. The key component of the proposal is establishing a path to citizenship for agricultural workers, as well as workplace safety and public health protections for farmworkers.

The Agricultural Worker Program Act is being proposed both in the House and Senate. Supporters include the United Farmworkers of America, Farmworker Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Farm Labor Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO, National Council of La Raza, and many other groups.

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