OMAHA (DTN) -- A bill loosening the rules for agricultural workers to come into the U.S. was introduced Monday in Congress and will get a mark-up Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee.
Another bill getting a mark-up on Wednesday would require all employers, including farmers, to participate in the federal government's E-Verify system.
The Agricultural Guestworker Act, or AG Act, was introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. 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 program for ag would be rebranded as 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 farms 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."
Goodlatte stated 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."
The Department of Labor shows 160,084 temporary H-2A ag jobs around the country were filled in the first nine months of 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.
Goodlatte's bill would have an initial allocation of as many as 500,000 H-2C visas; some farm groups expressed concern this is too low. The bill would also allow 10,000 permanent green cards each year for agricultural workers.
Agricultural groups largely praised Goodlatte's bill on Monday. Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, was among those supporting the bill, stating it would help with agriculture's labor shortage. Duvall said there were concerns, including the cap on visas, but indicated those issues could be worked out.
"The Ag Act's proposed guest worker visa program would bring much needed improvements to the current system while addressing the needs of our current workforce and providing a streamlined visa process for skilled, agricultural workers in the future," Duvall stated in a news release.
Labor was the top issue for members of the National Pork Producers Council at the group's fly-in last month to Washington, D.C. The group also backs Goodlatte's bill, especially provisions allowing workers to remain in the country for as long as three years before having to return home.
"The U.S. pork industry is suffering from a serious labor shortage," said NPPC President Ken Maschhoff, a pork producer from Carlyle, Illinois. Maschhoff added, "The U.S. pork industry needs a viable agriculture workforce to remain globally competitive. The current visa programs are not working for pork producers or for the broader agriculture community. The Goodlatte bill will rectify this."
The National Turkey Federation, National Chicken Council and North American Meat Institute also threw their support behind the bill.
The bill will be considered along with another bill, H.R. 3711, the "Legal Workforce Act," a bill by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, that would require all employers to use the E-Verify system when hiring employees. E-Verify is operated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to confirm employment eligibility, mainly through Social Security numbers.
Scrapping the I-9 system, under Smith's bill, every employer would have to use E-Verify within two years except agricultural employers, who would have 30 months before they would be required to use the system.
Smith stated last month that his bill would help reduce unemployment. "Nearly 20 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed," Smith stated. "Meanwhile, seven million people are working in the United States illegally. By expanding the E-Verify system to all U.S. employers, this bill will ensure that jobs only go to legal workers."
Smith's bill would also provide businesses "safe harbor" from prosecution if they use E-Verify but receive incorrect information on a hire.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com.
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