New agricultural labor bill expected in Congress in July

A new stab at agricultural labor reform is part of a deal in the U.S. House to vote on immigration reform. It could be “very, very good,” says the president of the National Council for Agricultural Employers.
Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Published on June 14, 2018 10:24AM

Last changed on June 20, 2018 8:44AM

Growers have increasingly turned to H-2A visa foreign guestworkers for harvest work in recent years because of labor shortages.

Dan Wheat/Capital Press File

Growers have increasingly turned to H-2A visa foreign guestworkers for harvest work in recent years because of labor shortages.

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A new agricultural labor reform bill is expected to be voted on in the U.S. House in July as part of deal to avert moderate Republicans and Democrats from bypassing GOP leadership and voting on immigration reform.

Bill language isn’t available yet but hopefully will be more to the liking of most agricultural groups by allowing legal status for current workers and avoiding a cap on the number of foreign guestworkers, said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council for Agricultural Employers in Washington, D.C.

“We may end up with ag labor provisions that will be very, very good,” Marsh said. “If we can have the current workforce and no cap on guestworkers, we might make E-verify work.”

E-verify — electronic verification of employment eligibility — to ensure workers are legal is something many Republicans want.

E-verify without legalizing current workers and with a cap on the number of guestworkers would “devastate” labor-intensive agriculture, Marsh said. That’s because an estimated 50 to 70 percent of tree fruit and vegetable workers are illegal.

The non-agricultural H-2B-visa program is capped at 66,000 workers annually, and because of that Chesapeake Bay crab companies have gone out of business, he said.

HR 4760, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., would replace the agricultural guestworker H-2A program that has no cap with a new H-2C program with a 410,000-worker cap. Existing illegal workers would be required to return to their country of origin and re-enter as H-2C workers.

It’s not certain countries of origin would accept returning workers so that jeopardizes a “seamless flow” of workers, Marsh said.

“A cap is like the government dictating to you that you only need three workers when you know you need 10. That’s just devastating to an employer who knows better what he needs to harvest a crop,” he said.

“H-2A is cumbersome and has challenges but it works and is growing,” Marsh said. “It’s important to get this right. It’s critical to have labor or you are out of business.”

A so-called discharge petition to bypass House GOP leadership on immigration reform reportedly fell two votes short because House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., promised action to about a half dozen GOP members who were considering supporting the petition, including Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.

Ryan promised floor votes, June 21 or 22, on a new immigration compromise between GOP moderates and conservatives to address DACA and border security. He also promised a vote on HR 4760 addressing DACA, border security and agricultural guestworker reform and a vote on a new ag labor reform bill in July. There are doubts any of the measures will pass.

Marsh said HR 4760 is not expected to pass, so the new ag bill will be prepared for a July vote.

DACA — Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals — is a 2014 executive order by then-President Barack Obama that granted children of illegal immigrants renewable two-year deferrals from deportation and work permits.

Many Republicans viewed it as unconstitutional. President Donald Trump tried to rescind DACA and courts intervened, but Congress has authority to address it.

Trump discussed immigration with lawmakers June 19. He wants funding for a border wall and merit-based immigration to replace lottery and family-chain immigration. He said he supports HR 4760 and the compromise bill.

Newhouse said DACA recipients in his district want certainty of protection from deportation and that the new compromise is the best way of getting there. He said he’s keeping his options open but decided, for now, not to sign the discharge petition given Ryan’s commitment to bring bills to the floor including a new ag bill.

Marsh said the National Council for Agricultural Employers did not endorse HR 4760 in order to optimize leverage to change it.

Marsh, former CEO of Western United Dairymen, said any July ag labor bill also needs year-round guestworkers for dairy operators. H-2A workers are now limited to 10-month stays. Some dairies make that work but it’s a challenge, he said.

Getting a bill through the Senate could be tougher than the House but even if it fails in the Senate, it would be ready for next year’s new Congress, he said.


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