The Judiciary Committee has sent to the full House a bill that would allow for year-round employment of foreign workers.
The House committee approved the Agricultural Guestworker Act, 17-16.
It would replace the problematic H-2A visa for temporary or seasonal workers with a new H-2C program that would still provide for those workers but also allow for an initial minimum stay of 36 months.
The bill’s passage out of committee is welcome news to dairy farmers, whose year-round labor needs are not addressed by the H-2A visa.
In addition to establishing a new visa for guestworkers, the bill would also allow currently undocumented farm workers to apply for the H-2C visas.
National Milk Producers Federation supports the bill as a first step in establishing a workable solution for dairy farmers’ labor needs, said Jim Mulhern, the organization’s president and CEO.
The bill is not ideal but “helps advance our efforts to assure a stable, dependable, legal workforce for America’s dairy farmers, now and in the future,” he said in a press release.
The committee made some changes to the initial draft of the bill developed by Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Chris Galen, NMPF senior vice president of communications, told Capital Press.
The committee’s version reduces the total number of visas from 500,000 to 450,000 and eliminates the number of green cards for experienced agricultural workers from 10,000 to zero. It also provides no protection from enforcement for workers or farmers between the time the bill is approved by Congress and when it goes into effect, he said.
“Also, the bill does nothing to provide visas for family members of agriculture guestworkers, which needs to be addressed,” he said.
While the committee’s version requires further improvements, it “merits the support of America’s farming community — and its refinement and passage must be a priority for congressional leaders,” Mulhern said.
The American Dairy Coalition wasn’t immediately available for comment, but stated in a press release the committee’s passage of the bill represents a huge step forward to resolve the desperate labor shortages in dairy and allied industries.
It would mark the first time the dairy industry gains access to a visa program that will ensure a stable workforce, the coalition’s CEO, Laurie Fischer, told Capital Press in an earlier interview.
The bill would also streamline the process and shorten the lag time for workers’ arrival. The program would be administered by USDA, which should increase the understanding of farmers’ needs, she said.
The Ag Act will offer workers and employers more choices in their employment arrangements, with more flexibility and less red tape, the coalition stated.
Unlike the H-2A program, the Ag Act does not require employers to provide housing and transportation for foreign workers. It also offers more flexibility in requirements for guestworkers to return to their home countries for a period of time.
Goodlatte says replacement of the outdated and broken H-2A visa is long overdue.
“The current agricultural guestworker program is unworkable for farmers, buries them in red tape and excessive costs and must be replaced,” he said in a statement on the committee’s passage of the bill.