A bill that would create a program for agricultural workers to earn legal status has the potential to break through a partisan logjam in the Senate—if the measure gets revised to address GOP concerns about business liabilities and caps on year-round visas.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 1603), which passed the House earlier this month, would overhaul the immigration system for farmworkers and alter the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program, cementing a stable workforce for employers and more protections for laborers.
“The bill has a lot of merit. I think there’s an opportunity to improve it yet,” said Roger Marshall (Kan.), the top Republican on the Senate subcommittee that oversees conservation, climate, forestry, and natural resources matters. “I support the overall concept, but it needs some tweaks,” he said at the Capitol last week, but didn’t list specific changes.
Backers of the legislation also would have to bring on board Republicans who see a greater priority in stemming the growing numbers of immigrants coming over the border with Mexico.
Most of the nation’s roughly 2.4 million farmworkers are undocumented, the Biden administration estimates, which poses legal quandaries for them, as well as the farms and dairies that often struggle to find enough hands to do arduous work picking crops or slaughtering animals.
“If this bill becomes law, these farmworkers can work without the lingering fear of deportation, or without their children having to worry whether their parents will come home from work each night,” said Janet Murguía, president and CEO of UnidosUS, a Latino civil rights organization.
The House passed the measure spearheaded by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) on March 18 with 30 Republicans voting in favor. That’s a wider margin of GOP support than for the American Dream and Promise Act (H.R. 6) that passed the same day, which is focused on undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) plan to introduce the bill’s companion legislation, with Bennet optimistic more Republicans will sign on to fix systemic flaws in the farmworker immigration system.
Republicans and Democrats who recognize the system’s flaws first introduced a bill in 2019. The House passed the legislation that December; it died after sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Industry groups, such as the United Fresh Produce Association, say reforms have been needed for decades.
Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council, points to the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House as reasons the reintroduced bill could fare better this year—along with lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic.
“When we had the border effectively shut down for a period of time, and you couldn’t get H-2A workers to the consulates, it was a big deal,” he said in a telephone interview. “Our folks out in the production areas really needed those essential workers.”
Path to Legal Status
In its current iteration, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would give agricultural workers and their spouses and minor children a path to gain legal status through continued employment, with a path toward a green card. It would offer as many as 20,000 H-2A visas annually for three years for year-round agricultural employers, such as those in the dairy industry.
The White House backed Lofgren and Newhouse’s version of the bill. Many farm and food trade groups, including the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, also support the legislation.
“Passing this bill would give these farm workers the chance to earn legal status and bring more certainty to farming operations across the country,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in an emailed statement. He urged the Senate to join the House in taking up the measure.
Several farm-state Democrats point to a need for immigration system changes, with the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) calling for “efforts to fix the system, including creating a pathway to citizenship for individuals and addressing inequities in guest worker programs.”
Senate GOP Outlook
Top Republican senators were mixed on the legislation.
Crapo doesn’t backthe House version, press secretary Melanie Lawhorn said in an email, adding that he and Bennet are working to put finishing touches on their own language. A date for their measure’s Senate introduction isn’t set, Bennet said.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.), who voted for the original bill, suggested revisions in an amendment, such as extending the time period required as an agricultural employee to maintain visa status, and cutting a provision that would include H-2A workers under a federal law (Public Law 97-470) that protects some workers with set employment standards.
His amendment would also modify the bill’s proposed wage payment structure. The American Farm Bureau Federation backs the amendment, president Zippy Duvall said in a March letter.
Senate Agriculture Committee member Mike Braun (Ind.), the top Republican on the Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research Subcommittee, declined to comment on the bill until he read it. The press team for Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), the subcommittee ranking member who oversees livestock, dairy, poultry, local food systems, and food safety, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), an Agriculture Committee freshman, plans to discuss the bill and weigh support for it at the Alabama Farmers Federation, his state’s largest farm organization. “I told them, when I got on this committee, I’m going to bring everything to them,” he said at the Capitol. “I think they’ll be pretty strong with it.”
However, Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee ranking member John Boozman (R-Ark.) doesn’t see an immediate future for the measure. Republicans have criticized the Biden administration over its immigration policies as migrants—especially unaccompanied children—continue to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Now is not the time to take up this bill given the ongoing crisis at our southern border,” he said in an emailed statement. “Our discussions on immigration must focus on ending the humanitarian crisis and securing the border before we move any other legislation that pertains to this issue.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org