A bipartisan bill introduced Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives aims to reform immigration laws and streamline the H-2A guest worker program.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would offer a path to legal status for workers already in the U.S., make the H-2A program more flexible and affordable and mandate E-Verify for all farm employment.
The measure faces an uphill battle as Congress is dealing with impeachment hearings and time is running short on the current session. If passed, it would be the first sizable reform to immigration laws since 1986, said Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Washington Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors.
However, the bill was drafted with bipartisan support from the get-go, when lawmakers, labor unions and ag employer groups first got to work in March, said Newhouse in a phone-in news conference Wednesday afternoon. “Having literally both sides of the issue at the table, we were able to work out a lot of areas where we were in conflict,” he said.
The bill is sponsored by 24 Democrats and 20 Republicans. U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, spearheaded the effort.
Agricultural industry organizations, such as the U.S. Apple Association, the Northwest Horticultural Council and Western Growers, as well as the United Farm Workers, an agricultural labor union, have voiced support for the bill.
The bill would:
—Establish documentation paths for workers already in the U.S. who continue to work in agriculture.
—Mandate E-Verify for all farm employment, with a structured phase-in.
—Reform the H-2A program to make it more flexible and affordable, including setting a cap on increases to the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, or AEWR, the federally mandated wage floors for H-2A workers that are intended to prevent the program from depressing pay for domestic workers.
Among those H-2A changes would be establishing a single online filing portal, allowing staggered arrivals, dropping the printed newspaper job posting requirement, reducing housing costs, expanding provisions to year-round labor needs and making several modifications to the AEWR. Those include setting different AEWRs for different occupations, capping year-to-year fluctuations and eliminating midseason adjustments.
“It’s a well-rounded, balanced approach to solving our ag workforce issues here in the United States,” Newhouse said.
The bill comes on the heels of some of the U.S. Department of Labor’s own administrative changes and proposed rule changes to the H-2A program, which take aim at many of the same issues. Some have been approved, but most are still under consideration.
—by Ross Courtney