House Reviving Ag Labor Bill

Most Ag Groups Support Proposal, But Bill Also Faces Ag Opposition Over Provisions

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
Laborers walk fields in an aerial shot. Congress is again trying to create a new guest-worker program for agriculture, but support for the bill is divided as groups that rely heavily on fruit and vegetable pickers oppose the bill. (DTN file photo by Jim Patrico)

WASHINGTON, D.C., (DTN) -- Coalitions of farm groups are at odds over whether the House should vote this week on a bill introduced last week by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., to replace the H-2A visa program with an agricultural guest-worker program, known as the H-2C program.

A coalition of more than 200 agriculture groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation has endorsed the bill, but Western Growers, the largest representative of fruit and vegetable growers in the country, and the California Farm Bureau Federation have come out in strong opposition.

The H-2C program would be available to both seasonal and year-round agricultural employers and provide a visa allocation, but would also require employers use the E-Verify system to make sure workers are legally in the United States.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., endorsed the bill.

The American Dairy Coalition said in a news release Monday that supporters are urging House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. to bring the bill to the floor for a vote before the House leaves Thursday for its long recess until after Labor Day.

"As interior enforcement efforts continue, those who are left without any means to secure a legal workforce are facing disaster. It is now up to Speaker Ryan to decide if the U.S. will end up importing food and putting thousands of domestic jobs at risk or securing a legal workforce we desperately need," the dairy group said.

Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, and Jamie Johansson, president of California Farm Bureau Federation, wrote in an opinion column published in The Fresno Bee on Monday that the provisions would constrict rather than expand the supply of immigrant workers in agriculture.

"The AG and Legal Workforce Act -- of which an earlier version has already been soundly defeated in the House -- must not be allowed back on the House floor; not before the August recess, not as part of a 'must-pass bill' after the break, and certainly not in the lame duck session after the election," Nassif and Johansson wrote.

Goodlatte's bill "would enact E-Verify without providing adequate protections for existing farm workers or properly ensuring a sufficient flow of future guest workers" Nassif and Johansson wrote.

In an earlier column, Nassif and Johansson said that the bill's "so-called 'touchback provision' for existing workers is a nonstarter."

"Many of our farmworkers have lived in the United States for years, decades in some cases, and have families with deep ties to their local communities," they wrote.

"Very few are willing to voluntarily declare their unauthorized status and that of their spouses to become part of a guest worker program that requires them to leave the country for extended periods of time, hoping new visas are granted and renewed. Consequently, these farmworkers will be driven deeper into the shadows, and will ultimately become unavailable to farmers as mandatory E-Verify kicks in."

They added that "while several of the provisions represent an improvement over the current system, the imposition of a cap would severely restrict farmers' access to an adequate supply of employees, especially since most of our current workers would disappear under the touchback provision of the bill."

Op-ed in the Fresno (Calif.) Bee https://www.fresnobee.com/…

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@njdc.com

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Jerry Hagstrom