House members introduce immigration reform bills
By Christine Souza
CFBF Federal Policy Division Manager Rayne Pegg, right, speaks with AgriTalk Radio host Mike Adams about the diverse workforce needs of California farms and ranches. The syndicated radio program broadcast from the Lodi farm of Wendy Moore, who described her difficulty in hiring enough vineyard employees.
One week after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced comprehensive immigration reform legislation, Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives released two bills: one to create a temporary agricultural guestworker program, and another that phases in mandatory use of the electronic verification program known as E-Verify.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., introduced the Agricultural Guestworker "AG" Act, which would create an agricultural guestworker program known as H-2C.
Goodlatte said H.R. 1773 would eliminate red tape; protect farmers from abusive litigation; eliminate the government-imposed wage rate and replace it with the prevailing wage rate or state minimum wage—whichever is greater; and move administration of the program to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under the legislation, a farmer must petition for H-2C employees before the workers could be admitted to the United States or initially be provided with legal status under the program.
California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division Manager Rayne Pegg said CFBF is pleased to see the House move forward on debating immigration reform and that "we hope that as the process moves forward, any final measures in the House and Senate will create a realistic bill to meet agriculture's needs."
Pegg noted that under the House proposal, the total number of visas issued through the H-2C guestworker program would be limited to 500,000 a year.
"It's not entirely clear how the cap would apply in future years for those agricultural workers currently here, and whether they would be required to return home and reapply for a visa. Currently, there are an estimated 1.3 million to 1.6 million agricultural workers in the U.S. who we want to ensure remain eligible to continue working in agriculture, after passing a background check and paying a fine," Pegg said.
She noted that the Senate proposal does not have a cap for those who qualify for legal status who are currently working in agriculture and can qualify, but a cap for the number of visas for future workers.
"As the debate between the two houses moves forward, we will have to ensure that the final legislation creates the secure and flexible program that agriculture needs," Pegg said.
After the bill was introduced last Friday, the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, of which CFBF and the American Farm Bureau Federation are members, reacted positively to how the immigration debate is shaping up in Congress, calling the legislation "an important first step in the House of Representatives."
Goodlatte and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, also introduced the Legal Workforce Act, which would phase in mandatory use of E-Verify, an electronic verification system that checks information provided by new employees against Social Security Administration databases and Department of Homeland Security records.
Among its provisions, H.R. 1772 would repeal the current, paper-based I-9 system and replace it with a completely electronic work eligibility check; phase in mandatory E-Verify participation for new hires in six-month increments, with enactment deadlines set according to number of employees; allow states to enforce the federal E-Verify requirement; and grant employers a safe harbor from prosecution if they use the E-Verify program in good faith and receive an incorrect eligibility confirmation.
The Senate immigration bill includes an agriculture immigration program negotiated between agricultural groups and farmworker advocates, which provides a way for those currently working in agriculture who are not properly documented to continue working in agriculture, and creates a visa program that allows foreign workers to enter the U.S. to work in agriculture. The Senate Judiciary Committee has begun holding hearings on the bill and the full Senate is expected to debate it in June.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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