A bipartisan group of House members revealed an immigration bill to prop up the dwindling agricultural labor base by regularizing the status of foreign-born workers.
The bill, presented by Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), and Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) has the support of 24 Democrats and 20 Republicans.
“The success of our farmers, growers and producers is essential not only for our economy but for our national security,” said Diaz-Balart, the lead Republican on the bill. “For far too long, we’ve suffered from a broken H2A visa system, making it difficult for farmers to hire the workforce necessary to provide to the American people.”
The bill would allow foreign agricultural workers who’ve worked in the sector for at least 180 days over the past two years to request five-year visas for themselves, their spouses and their minor children.
In order to renew their visas after five years, workers would have to prove they’ve worked at least 100 days in agriculture per year.
The bill would also allow a path to legal permanent status – which itself grants a path to citizenship – for previously-undocumented agricultural workers who pay a $1,000 fine.
Workers with more than 10 years of agricultural service at the time of enactment would need to work another four years in agriculture to obtain legal permanent status, and workers with less than 10 years experience would need to accumulate a further eight years to qualify.
To that end, the bipartisan agreement would create 40,000 green cards per year for agricultural workers.
The bill also simplifies the existing H-2A program for visiting guest workers ineligible for the new program.
On the enforcement end, the bill would make the E-Verify program universal and compulsory for all agricultural work nationwide.
Some lawmakers have pushed E-Verify as the No. 1 solution to reduce undocumented labor in the United States; however, the program, which essentially checks work applications against a database to establish a worker’s legal status, has drawn criticism from both the left and the right for privacy issues, effectiveness and putting the onus of legal immigration status fully on workers rather than employers.
Under the new bill, E-Verify would only be mandatory for agricultural work and would be implemented in phases, with due process protections for incorrectly flagged workers.
The bipartisan agreement was hashed out over months of talks after farmers reached out to lawmakers on both sides demanding more access to labor.
Rep. Luis Correa (D-Calif.) told The Hill that poultry producers reached out to him after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid in Mississippi in August led to the arrest of more than 600 undocumented workers in seven plants.
Correa said poultry producers and others in the agricultural industry were unable to fill the jobs, leading them to cut production in some cases.
“And that was the impetus. So, the lesson here is it took a crisis,” Correa said. “California farmers are also in desperate need – a lot of these farmers need these workers, and that’s what really motivated this bill to move ahead.”
The bill has yet to obtain backing from Democratic leadership, but it’s likely to receive widespread approval from Democrats.
Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told The Hill that Lofgren has discussed the bill with him, but he hasn’t reviewed its content yet.
Republicans on the bill include Western and Midwestern members from heavily agricultural districts whose constituencies depend on foreign labor.
“I am very encouraged with the negotiation and the product that has been brought forward that includes E-Verify with the guest worker program and I think that it needs to happen,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), a co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s long overdue.”
The bill parts with the paradigm of tying immigration benefits to funding increased border and interior enforcement, relying instead on E-Verify.
“Go back and look at all the conversations since ’03,” he told The Hill. “There have been bills just like this and they never go anywhere.”