An agricultural labor bill that has divided agricultural groups will not be voted on in the U.S. House before its August recess begins Friday, but proponents and others say they will keep working the issue.
The Ag and Legal Workforce Act, HR 6417, that would replace the H-2A-visa guestworker program with a less costly H-2C program, had bipartisan support but apparently not the 218 votes to pass. It also would impose mandatory E-verify, electronic verification of employment eligibility.
The bill was supported by more than 200 agricultural groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif., and the California Farm Bureau Federation lobbied strongly against it saying E-verify could devastate California’s ag labor workforce without better transition to legal status for the 50 to 70 percent of illegal immigrant workers. California has more ag workers than any other state and the most labor-intensive crops.
But Paul Schlegel, managing director of public policy and economics for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said people are upset that Western Growers and CFBF would work to stop a vote rather than further improve the bill in the House or Senate.
“There are a lot of people bewildered that ag groups would try to shut down the best chance we’ve had in years. I talked to a dairy guy in upstate New York today who is very frustrated. Dairy can’t use H-2A. I’m starting to tell people if they lose workers to call Western Growers. Maybe they can get them workers,” Schlegel said.
Ag labor often is a component of larger immigration bills but this was a stand-alone ag labor bill sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., and co-sponsored by six Republicans and two Democrats. It was supported by the chairs of the moderate Republican Tuesday Group and the conservative Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee.
The last time ag labor was seriously debated was in 2013 and before that 2007 and before that in the 1990s, Schlegel said.
“So you don’t get these opportunities very often. The acuteness and gravity of the problem (labor shortage) means we should work together. The bill may not be perfect but it’s a darn sight better than what may exist in the figment of someone’s imagination,” he said.
AFBF strongly supports the bill but knows legal status for current workers is the central issue to work on, he said.
“But you can’t work on it, if you don’t have the legislative process in full gear and that’s why we want to keep it moving,” he said.
“Everyone knows we will get better reception on transitioning the current workforce in the Senate. If we could marry the H-2C and the 2013 Senate plan for the current workforce, we’d have a good package,” Schlegel said.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., a co-sponsor of the bill, said he is “disappointed the time line for a vote has shifted,” but pledged to continue to work to bring the bill to the floor vote that House leadership promised him and other members.
Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council for Agricultural Employers, in Washington, D.C., said he thinks House leadership delayed a vote out of concern of having enough votes and didn’t want a third immigration-related measure to fail within two months. Leadership also was under pressure from non-agricultural groups opposed to E-verify, he said.
But Schlegel said he knows of no non-ag groups opposed to E-verify. It’s possible, he said, that opponents have a hidden agenda.
Proponents probably didn’t have the votes for passage but were very close, he said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., promised Newhouse and others a vote on an ag labor bill before recess to dissuade them from voting for a so-called discharge petition that would have allowed Democratic immigration bills to be voted on last month.
But McCarthy came under heavy pressure from his home-state constituents to scrap the vote. McCarthy’s office issued a statement saying there will be a vote but that more work needs to be done to gather support needed for passage.
The bill would allow illegal workers to obtain H-2C visas, “touchout” to another country briefly or for up to a year and return on the visa as H-2C workers. Western Growers says that leaves workers’ spouses open to deportation.
“Our growers tell us that workers tell them they would rather continue living in the shadows than convert to H-2C. So we can’t support a bill that would cause us to lose our workforce,” Tom Nassif, Western Growers president and CEO, said recently.
“We support an expanded guestworker program and a path to legal status for individuals currently working in agriculture. Unfortunately, the bill falls far short of a solution for our farmers and employees. We are calling upon our congressional delegation to oppose bringing this bill to the floor for a vote,” the California Farm Bureau said in a statement urging its members to lobby against the bill.
Dan Fazio, director of the farm labor association WAFLA in Olympia, said the bill deserves a vote. E-verify is merely a way to determine workers an employer hires are legal, it’s been used voluntarily for more than 10 years and during that time use of H-2A has grown, he said.
“HR 6417 allows workers who are currently undocumented to continue working in agriculture, participate in the legal worker program and, best of all, step out of the shadows,” Fazio said.
“We don’t have a program today that works for all of ag. H-2A doesn’t for dairy. We need a program. Before we get to that we need transition for current workers. Nobody disputes that. It’s just do you work to improve that or take your ball and go home,” Schlegel said.
“We will never get to a solution if the House can’t pass a bill. We it’s self-defeating for people to wait for the perfect thing. We won’t get a solution for our growers if we adopt that attitude,” he said.
Marsh said he’s “very appreciative” of the “tremendous job” Newhouse and Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, both California Republicans, have done to “significantly” improve the bill.
They made a 410,000 cap on the number of H-2C workers allowed per year more palatable in the first two years by giving the secretary of Agriculture authority to exceed it, Marsh said.
Transitioning illegal workers coupled with E-verify remains the issue for some and he will work on that, he said.
California ag production dwarfs the rest of the nation in the value and investment in labor-intensive crops, he said.
“Western Growers and CFBF are concerned the transition for existing workers is not seamless. If the whole thing doesn’t work exactly right, it will be a disaster,” Marsh said. “So from my perspective what can we do to fashion a solution. Western Growers and California Farm Bureau are engaged.”