WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary approved by an 18-to-2 vote the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bipartisan measure that, among other things, would provide agricultural workers in the United States, and their spouses and minor children, a way to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment and contribution to the U.S. agricultural economy. Additionally, the bill would modernize the nation’s temporary worker programs.
Representative Zoe Lofgren of Florida, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, “The men and women who work America’s farms feed the nation. But, farmworkers across the country are living and working with uncertainty and fear, contributing to the destabilization of farms across the nation. Our bill offers stability for American farms by providing a path to legal status for farmworkers.
“In addition, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act addresses the nation’s future labor needs by modernizing an outdated system for temporary workers, while ensuring fair wages and workplace conditions,” Ms. Lofgren said. “This momentous vote today in the Judiciary Committee moves our proposal forward so all members can soon vote on the first-of-its-kind bipartisan immigration compromise in decades that improves America’s agricultural labor programs and laws.”
Chief sponsors of the bill in the House include Democrats Ms. Lofgren and Jimmy Panetta of California, and Republicans Dan Newhouse of Washington, Mike Simpson of Idaho, Doug LaMalfa of California and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida.
Under the bill, in order to earn legal status, applicants must have been employed at least 180 days in agriculture during the last two years. Qualified applicants will be provided five-year renewable agriculture visas. Individuals may renew their five-year visas by working at least 100 days in agriculture each year. Those who have agricultural experience but do not meet the criteria for eligibility will be provided the option of applying for H-2A visas.
Qualified individuals then will have the opportunity to earn legal permanent resident status. Those applying for legal permanent resident status must pay a $1,000 fine and meet one of the following two criteria:
- If an individual worked in agriculture in the United States for at least 10 years before enactment, they must work an additional four years in agriculture after enactment before they can apply for legal permanent resident status.
- If an individual worked in agriculture for less than 10 years, they must work an additional eight years in agriculture before being eligible to apply.
Title II of the bill would reform the H-2A program to provide more flexibility for employers while ensuring protections for workers, bill sponsors said.
Title II includes a section limiting wage fluctuations by capping wages increases and decreases. It would improve the availability of farmworker housing while lowering employer costs related to providing such housing.
Title II also will take a two-pronged approach to meeting year-round labor needs. First, the bill would dedicate an additional 40,000 green cards per year for agricultural workers. These visas may be used by employers to sponsor workers to fill unmet permanent agricultural labor needs. The bill also creates an option for H-2A workers to apply directly after completing 10 years of H-2A work.
And second, the bill creates a new, capped program for employers seeking to bring in temporary workers to fill year-round needs. Although the program would be capped, the secretaries of agriculture and labor would be able to increase visa caps if market conditions warranted such increases. Visas would be made available for both dairy and non-dairy needs.
Title III of the bill would establish a mandatory, nationwide E-Verify system for all agricultural employment. The system would have a structured phase-in and guaranteed due process for authorized workers who are incorrectly rejected by the system.