Ag Worker Overhaul Doubtful

Immigration Bill in House Changes Ag Guest-Worker Program, But Passage Unlikely

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Congress has vowed to work on farm labor for years, but a bill that could reach the House floor on Thursday doesn't have much industry support. A 2015 study by Texas A&M for the dairy industry found immigrant labor is employed at dairy farms that produce 79% of the country's milk supply. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) -- An overhaul of the agricultural guest-worker program will be part of the immigration packages that the U.S. House of Representatives will likely debate on Thursday, but basically has little chance of passing.

The House will vote on a pair of immigration bills, but lawmakers and observers expect both bills will go down in defeat.

One of the bills, the so-called "compromise bill," HR 6136, focuses on spending $25 billion for a wall along the southern border and making it harder to immigrate to the U.S. by ending the visa lottery program. The bill also would legalize those young people known as "Dreamers" under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and would spell out a law to keep families together when parents and children are apprehended at the border.

"As I said last week, we do not want children taken away from their parents," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Wednesday. "We can enforce our immigration laws without breaking families apart."

Ryan's comments came before an announcement by President Donald Trump on Wednesday that he would sign an executive order to end the family separations. Trump signed the order after the national backlash over separating children and their parents and recognizing Congress is not going to quickly pass a bill to solve the family separation problem.

The agricultural guest-worker overhaul is part of the bill "Securing America's Future Act," or HR 4760, by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. The bill would scrap the current H-2A temporary ag worker program and replace it with a new program, dubbed H-2C, that 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. 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. Although the exact number of undocumented workers in agriculture is not known, it has been estimated by the Pew Research Center that at least 30% of the farm labor force is undocumented.

Yet, despite the demands for legal agricultural labor around the country, farm groups have not embraced the bill. For instance, the American Farm Bureau Federation, which seeks to reform agricultural labor laws, has not taken a position on either of the immigration bills before the House. Staff from other agricultural groups told DTN the bill doesn't do enough to help existing farm workers.

As Politico reported Wednesday, Republican leadership in the House has been unable to generate enough support to pass either immigration bill. President Trump's talk with House Republicans on Tuesday was not able to convince GOP lawmakers to back either bill.

And yet, in the way Congress works, Goodlatte's bill is being brought to a floor vote largely as a way to defeat a moderate petition supported by nearly every Democrat and 23 moderate Republicans to protect the DACA recipients from potential deportation. By bringing up Goodlatte's bill, the petition is scrapped and has to start over.

The conservative group Heritage Action for America dubbed the compromise bill as an "amnesty" bill because the language on the DACA youth provides a possible pathway to citizenship. Heritage also maintains the bill would not end "chain migration" -- the practice of people who are immigrants bringing further family into the country legally.

As Politico noted, conservatives largely remain opposed to the DACA provisions. "They're still wary of voting for a bill they fear will be viewed as 'amnesty,' leaving GOP leaders with far fewer than the 218 votes needed to pass the plan."

The failure of HR 4760 would leave farmers and agriculture nationally in the situation of a tight labor market with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) increasingly cracking down on illegal labor. Just Tuesday, ICE arrested 146 people working at a pork processing plant in Canton, Ohio, following an immigration raid.

The National Pork Producers Council is one of the agricultural groups that has thrown its support behind Goodlatte's H-2C overhaul. NPPC has said over the past year that finding legal labor for farms has become a top priority for its members.

"Our challenges with ag labor certainly hasn't changed when we talk about the pork industry and what's happening in rural America," said Jen Sorenson, chairwoman of NPPC's ag labor task force. "It continues to be one of our highest priorities."

Sorenson, who works for Iowa Select Farms, said more pork producers are facing the challenge of what it takes to get a quality workforce to deal with the daily needs of animal care, "Producers have a really high standard when it comes to animal care, and it's not something that can be mechanized."

The current agricultural guest-worker program, H-2A, has a seasonality clause restricting a visa to nine months of the year. That does not help pork producers, dairy farmers or other livestock operations that demand labor 365 days a year.

"Someone has got to show up to the barns every day, and that gets difficult," Sorenson said.

DTN Livestock Analyst John Harrington cited a "chronic labor shortage" this week as the reason a new Sioux City, Iowa, pork plant will not be launching a second shift this summer as planned. For more on the packer labor shortage, see….

Then there is the introduction of more packing capacity in places such as Iowa. Sorenson pointed to the construction of a new pork plant in Eagle Grove, Iowa, a rural area of north-central Iowa that will demand more labor there.

Some agricultural employers have relied heavily on the nonimmigrant North American Free Trade Agreement Professional (TN) visa to fill positions. Several agricultural jobs are allowed for that three-year visa program, but applicants under that visa are also generally required to have a college degree or equivalent to qualify.

Sorenson said NPPC and other agricultural groups are watching to ensure that visa program remains included in the NAFTA renegotiation talks.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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Chris Clayton