Ag Guest-Worker Bill Fails

House Rejects Immigration Bill With Agricultural Worker Overhaul Included

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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An immigration bill that would overhaul the agricultural guest-worker program failed to pass on Thursday in the House of Representatives. In this file photo, H-2A workers sort onions at a facility near Vidalia, Georgia. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) --- In yet another legislative debacle in the ongoing U.S. immigration debate, the House of Representatives defeated a conservative immigration bill that included provisions that would have overhauled the agricultural guest-worker program.

HR 4760, the "Immigration and Border Security Act," went down in defeat 193-231 as 41 Republicans joined all 190 Democrats to vote against the bill.

The failure leaves agricultural employers with the current H-2A temporary ag-labor program run by the U.S. Department of Labor, which many farm groups have criticized as laborious and impractical in farm operations that need ag labor year-round. It also leaves potentially hundreds of thousands of current agricultural workers as undocumented and at risk of deportation.

Debate leading up to the vote was emotional with Democrats assailing the legislation based upon overall immigration restrictions in the bill and President Donald Trump's immigration policies that separated children from parents. Republicans backing the bill talked about language to tighten border security, such as building a wall, while the bill would legalize the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals youth, though the 1.8 million or so DACA recipients and Dreamers would not have been granted a pathway to citizenship.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the bill "a compromise with the devil."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who brought two separate bills to the House floor on Thursday, said farmers have been struggling to maintain labor in recent years. He cited a survey from the California Farm Bureau last fall showing more than two-thirds of farmers in that state were facing chronic labor shortages.

"The labor force status quo is clearly unsustainable for American agriculture," Goodlatte said.

In the midst of the debate early Thursday afternoon, the American Farm Bureau Federation issued a news release citing that its board of directors voted unanimously to support HR 4760 because of the agricultural-labor provisions.

"The American Farm Bureau board was resolute and unanimous in its support of these agricultural labor reforms," said Zippy Duvall, AFBF's president. "Those provisions authorize a new agricultural guest-worker program, and they go a long way toward fixing the biggest problem we face in agriculture -- a shortage of agricultural labor that limits our ability to produce food, fiber and fuel."

HR 4760 would have created a new ag-worker program, dubbed H-2C, which would allow farmers and other employers to bring in 410,000 foreign workers for farm jobs as well as 40,000 foreign workers for meatpacking plants and other agricultural processing businesses. The provisions also shift oversight of the agricultural guest-worker program from the Department of Labor to USDA.

Undocumented farmworkers already in the United States also could have gained legal status by enrolling in the H-2C program, although they would have had to leave the United States and apply for re-entry. The bill also would have required farmers to use the federal E-Verify system when hiring new workers.

After defeating the bill, House members dove right into another immigration bill that does not include any agricultural guest-worker provisions. HR 6136 would include $25 billion for a wall along the southern border and make it harder to immigrate into the U.S. by ending the visa lottery program. The bill also would legalize DACA recipients, but also scraps visa lotteries and tightens the ability of a person to enter the country legally. In addition, the bill would spell out a law to keep families together when parents and children are apprehended at the border, but includes new funding for new facilities to house families being prosecuted for illegal entry into the country.

The vote on that bill, however, was delayed until Friday as Republican leaders seek to convince wayward GOP members to vote for the bill instead of opposing it.

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Chris Clayton