House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., had a guest editorial Wednesday on farmpolicyfacts.org about his legislation to develop a better guest worker program for agriculture.
Goodlatte states he plans to introduce his "Agricultural Guestworker Act - or the AG Act -- soon to overhaul the guestworker program for farm labor. Goodlatte indicated he has been working on the bill for some time. It was coincidental that the op-ed came out the day after President Donald Trump shined a new spotlight on immigration with his administration's rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
It's unclear exactly how the DACA move would impact other immigration legislation. Similar "ag jobs" bills have been floated in Congress going back more than a decade. Goodlatte stated that his committee intends to advance this bill quickly.
Goodlatte, a former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said agriculture struggles to keep a stable, reliable workforce. Further, the H-2A program for temporary agricultural guest workers "is expensive, flawed and plagued with red tape." Goodlatte said H-2A's "burdensome requirements place employers at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace and threaten the future of U.S. agricultural production."
Updated: The Department of Labor shows 160,084 temporary H-2A ag jobs around the country were filled in the current Fiscal Year 2017, more than double the volume from just a few years ago. Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Washington and California combined for just over 50% of the H-2A requests and positions filled.
H-2A, though, only fills 15% -16% of the estimated 1 million farm labor jobs in the U.S. nationally. The program, because of its limits on how long a worker can remain on a farm, also means H-2A doesn't work for livestock operations such as dairy.
The AG Act would take the ag guestworker program out of the Department of Labor and move it to USDA, Goodlatte stated, "an agency that clearly understands the unique needs of America's farm and ranch operations and the importance of getting perishable agricultural commodities to market in an efficient manner." The H-2A would be rebranded to the H-2C program.
People now working on farms illegally would be allowed to participate in the new H-2C program and become legal agricultural workers.
Workers would be allowed to stay longer at farmers with "flexible touchback requirements" back to their home country. H-2C would be broadened to include forestry, dairies, food processors and other year-round agricultural jobs "when adequate domestic labor cannot be found."
H-2A comes with certain transportation, housing and income requirements. Goodlatte states in his op-ed that under the AG Act, "the marketplace, not Washington, drives the agriculture industry." The bill would offer workers and employers more choices about work arrangements, "making it easier for workers to move freely throughout the marketplace, both to seek optimal working conditions and meet farmers' fluctuating needs."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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