Due to Congressional and administration inaction in dealing with the current broken immigration system, a substantial number of agricultural workers are improperly-documented. Though their documents appear valid to an employer, they may not be. This situation has existed for decades, due in part to the fact that the H-2A guestworker program has operated in a cumbersome and unresponsive manner. Estimates are that upwards of 70 percent of the overall harvest labor in the U.S. is provided by an improperly-documented immigrant workforce. Recent enforcement actions have put major strain on an ag labor force that was already depleted.
If agricultural employers were mandated to electronically verify the status of their workforce a significant number of workers would be rejected, creating chaos for farmers and consumers. Even those farmers who do have a legal workforce would be impacted, as the demand for their workers would increase immediately in response to the labor supply contraction. The result would be dramatically increased costs for producers of highly perishable agricultural commodities and higher prices for consumers.
REVISED PROGRAM FOR AGRICULTURE
In order to avoid a full-blown crisis in agriculture where product either rots in the field or production shifts to overseas competitors, U.S. potato growers support efforts to ensure that agricultural employers have access to a stable and skilled workforce, including current workers without U.S. citizenship.
NPC is an active member of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), which negotiated the agricultural guestworker reform plan within the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act approved by the Senate in June 2013. Key bill provisions included:
- Establishing a new guestworker program that responds to the marketplace.
- Placing USDA in charge of running that new program, in place of the Department of Labor.
- Rejecting “hard caps” on participation in the new guestworker program.
- Providing an opportunity for the current workforce to obtain legal status, provided they adhere to certain punitive measures.
Though the Senate passed this legislation in 2013, it was not taken up by the House. Since that failure, the issues surrounding agriculture immigration reform and immigration reform in general have only continued to strain federal and state resources.
HOUSE EFFORT TO RESURRECT IMMIGRATION REFORM In October 2017, the House Judiciary Committee was successful in favorably reporting the Agricultural Guestworker Act (H.R. 4092) out of committee. Several provisions have practical flaws that fall short of the overall goal of providing a workable solution to agriculture’s labor crisis. However, it is very positive that the Judiciary Committee could agree upon a bill and Chairman Goodlatte should be commended for his determination. Without the Committee’s action on H.R. 4092, the agriculture industry could have been vulnerable to Mandatory E-Verify moving alone. The Mandatory E-Verify Bill - H.R. 3711 was also reported out of committee during the same mark-up. In reporting the bill out of committee, future options to find a solution are preserved.
Following are some of the benefits and limitations of the Guestworker Act approved by the House Judiciary Committee as written:
Guestworker Act Benefits:
- Creates a new H-2C guestworker program to replace the current H-2A program run by USDA.
- Sets minimum wages at 115 percent of either federal or state minimums.
- Eliminates various employer costs, including transportation and housing.
Guestworker Act Limitations:
- Requires the entire current improperly-documented workforce to leave the country before they can be readmitted as temporary guestworkers under the new program.
- Establishes an initial cap of 450,000 annual H-2C visas (410,000 initially for agriculture and 40,000 for processing). The current H-2A program is uncapped and the demand for agricultural workers is approximately 1.3 million annually.
- Broadens the definition of agriculture to include forestry, aquaculture and meat/poultry processing. This expanded definition puts further stress on the H-2C cap.
DEFERRED ACTION FOR CHILDHOOD ARRIVALS (DACA) AS A VEHICLE
There may be an opportunity to attach an agriculture reform bill to a larger bill related to the DACA issue. The president has set March 5, 2018, as a deadline for resolving this situation. Recognizing the urgency of that issue, certain agricultural groups have endorsed the House’s Guestworker Act moving forward in order to keep our options open, recognizing that it must be improved. Other groups believe a second opportunity for immigration reform may appear later in the year, though that is unclear given the election, Farm Bill and the challenges of dealing with a fractured Congress.
CONTINUED NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE REFORM
Going forward, NPC is working with the Agriculture Workforce Coalition in meeting with House and Senate leadership and member offices on a viable solution for agriculture. Agriculture and the public would benefit from immigration policy that addresses all aspects of the problem in the appropriate sequence. Implementation of Mandatory E-Verify or other employer enforcement actions cannot occur until an industry-supported solution for agriculture’s labor crisis is fully implemented and operational. The economic impact of an “enforcement-only” approach would cause tremendous harm to American consumers and the farmers that feed them for years to come.
Updated March 20, 2018