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Senate receives farm workforce bill from House

Issue Date: March 24, 2021
By Kevin Hecteman

A bill seeking to stabilize the U.S. farm workforce and revise an agricultural visa system now heads for the Senate after clearing the House of Representatives.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 passed the House 247-174 last week. The California congressional delegation voted 44-8 in favor, with most representatives of agricultural districts supporting the bill.

California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson welcomed the bill's passage.

"We're pleased to see the Farm Workforce Modernization Act advance," Johansson said. "We thank Reps. Lofgren and Newhouse for championing the bill, and the many California representatives who advocated and voted for it."

The bill, H.R. 1603, was reintroduced earlier this month by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who also co-sponsored a nearly identical bill two years ago. The earlier bill also passed the House with bipartisan support, but was not taken up in the Senate.

With House passage of the act a second time, the focus again returns to the Senate. Johansson said Farm Bureau will work with California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla to seek refinements to the bill's guestworker provisions.

"We know Sens. Feinstein and Padilla appreciate the importance of easing chronic employee shortages on California farms, and of providing more stability and dignity to the men and women who work in agriculture," he said. "Farmers and farm employees are eager to see the Senate move quickly in addressing immigration reform for agriculture."

Feinstein announced support of the bill the day following its House passage, noting its similarities to a "blue card" proposal she has supported in the past that would create a path to legal status for agricultural employees.

"Now that the bill has passed the House, I will work with my colleagues to pass it in the Senate," Feinstein said in a statement. "I've worked on farmworker legislation for years, and can tell you this is long overdue. It's time to give farmers the help they need and protect the essential workers who work hard to put food on our tables."

On Twitter, Padilla described as "big news" passage of the agricultural bill and a separate bill to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

"Let's keep up this momentum," Padilla said.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act lays out a path to legal status for people who have put in at least 180 days of work in agriculture during the past two years. These employees could earn Certified Agricultural Worker status by remaining in agricultural employment for at least 100 days per year and passing a background check. Such legal status would also apply to the employee's spouse and minor children.

Agricultural employees who want to earn green cards can work their way toward that goal by paying a $1,000 fine and continuing to work in agriculture for at least eight years—for those who have fewer than 10 years in—or four more years for those with 10 or more years of agricultural employment.

The bill also seeks to reform the H-2A visa program under which nonimmigrant agricultural employees come to the United States.

H-2A provisions include streamlining the application process, allowing employers to stagger start times, moving advertisements for domestic employees from newspapers to online job sites and allowing some H-2A visa holders to work for multiple employers. The bill also would allot as many as 20,000 visas at the outset for employees of year-round operations such as dairies and nurseries.

Once all other provisions of the bill are enacted, it would mandate use of the E-Verify employment-verification system for agricultural hiring, including due-process protections for people wrongly rejected by the system.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act earned support from hundreds of other agricultural organizations.

The National Milk Producers Federation said the broad support among farm groups and bipartisan vote in the House demonstrate the "acute need" for agricultural immigration reform. NMPF President and CEO Jim Mulhern said House passage "provides crucial momentum toward addressing dairy's ongoing workforce crisis, which has only intensified during the COVID pandemic."

At the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, President Chuck Conner called House passage of the bill a "critical step" toward achieving longstanding immigration-reform goals. Though he said the organization has concerns with some provisions, he said the bill "provides an excellent starting point for the Senate to begin work on the issue."

Describing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act as "well-crafted and durable," Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia noted that it addresses both the existing workforce and the future flow of workers and had been "negotiated in painstaking detail and agreed to by advocates representing farmers and farmworkers alike."

Johansson said Senate action on the bill would demonstrate support for the essential work being done by agricultural employees through the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic.

"The men and women who work on farms and ranches have shown dedication to their jobs and to their communities during an extremely trying time," he said. "Everyone in the country has benefited from that dedication. Farmers and farm employees need a legislative solution that will help assure farms and ranches retain the flexibility to respond to changing demands for safe, healthy food and farm products."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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