A second chance on immigration reform


By Steve Kopperud, Brownfield 

November 25, 2019


The problem of finding enough legal, qualified workers is a big challenge for livestock and poultry producers, processors and crop growers, but even when Congress gets all bipartisan in pursuit of a solution, politics and ideology get in the way.


Such is the situation with a bipartisan House bill to reinvent the H-2A visa program for seasonal ag workers, legislation approved last week by the Judiciary Committee.  The bill would modernize the visa program, expanding it to cover year-round employment and extending it to industries not yet eligible to obtain the visas, including dairy.  The bill seeks to streamline the H-2A application process, increase the number of visas the federal government issues, require E-Verify, and modifies employer wage rate calculations and formulas and housing responsibilities, while ensuring worker wages are based on jobs done.


The legislation is the product of cooperation between Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D, CA), who chairs the judiciary panel’s immigration subcommittee, and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R, WA).  Lofgren and Newhouse worked for the last eight months with both agriculture employers and ag labor groups to produce a compromise visa reform package. More than 50 House cosponsors from both parties are on board.  Importantly, 300 local, state and national ag groups sent a letter to House leadership last week supporting the bill.


The lawmakers admit the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) isn’t perfect, but is a giant first step in trying to solve the farm labor shortage crisis.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D, CA) says she’s committed to seeing the bill acted on in her chamber.


However, despite the bill’s broad support, it emerged from the full committee on a straight party line vote.  Why?  Because in addition to the enhancements the bill makes to the visa program — to benefit employers — it also carries language to permit undocumented workers already in the U.S. to gain “legal status” by providing those workers a path to a green card.  No shortcuts, no special treatment, just a clear system to move from illegal to legal worker status if legal requirements are met over time.


Several conservative lawmakers describe the bill as “massive amnesty” given it’s estimated 10-12 million workers currently in the U.S. are here illegally.


“We’re dealing more with (legal) status than the worker situation.  We’re bringing a bill to markup without the slightest idea how many individuals this bill would put on a pathway to citizenship,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R, GA), ranking panel member, when the bill was brought up in committee.


Collins fixated in his committee remarks on the fact the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is not yet  among the ag groups publicly supporting the bill...