Two major farm organizations are split on a U.S. House bill seeking to bolster immigration enforcement, address DACA and replace the H-2A-visa foreign guestworker program with a new H-2C program.
The Securing America’s Future Act, HR 4760, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., and other committee chairmen, was endorsed Feb. 23 by the American Farm Bureau Federation and opposed by Western Growers Association.
“We are at a crisis point in agriculture,” said Zippy Duvall, Farm Bureau president.
The H-2C program is “far superior” to the H-2A program, “offers a brighter future for agriculture,” and includes dairy, mushrooms and other sectors excluded from H-2A, Duvall said.
But Western Growers — representing growers of more than half the nation’s fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, with members in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado — announced its board of directors unanimously opposes the bill. Members have operations in 28 states. Fresh produce growers employ the largest share of agricultural workers in the nation.
The bill would worsen America’s farm labor shortage by forcing long-time agricultural workers to return to their countries of origin to apply for a new H-2C visa or stay in the shadows, the board said.
A month ago, Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif wrote of his opposition to the bill in an email intended for members that was also leaked to the media. A Western Growers spokesman at the time verified the accuracy of quotes from the email but declined further comment.
The Washington farm labor association WAFLA on Feb. 26 urged its members to lobby for HR 4760, calling H-2C a reasonable guestworker program that lowers costs for farmers.
The issue of how to handle undocumented workers can be addressed in the Senate, said Dan Fazio, WAFLA director.
“Our concern is for farms and farmers who cannot afford the cost and bureaucratic mess” of the H-2A program, Fazio said. “Labor costs are spiraling out of control and I’m afraid we are going to lose large numbers of large farms in the next several years.”
HR 4760 would grant DACA — which stands for Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals — recipients a three-year renewable legal status allowing them to work and travel overseas but with no special paths to permanent work status known as green cards.
Farmworkers in the U.S. illegally would be allowed to return to their country of origin and apply for re-entry as H-2C-visa workers.
Western Growers believes “few employees would leave spouses and children behind in the U.S., many subject to deportation, on the questionable assumption that the federal government will efficiently re-admit them as temporary seasonal guestworkers,” a Western Growers news release states.
Those who attempt to return to their countries of origin may find it difficult after so many years, the release states.
Duvall, the Farm Bureau president, said he continues to work with Goodlatte for assurances relating to existing workers.
“Farmers today rely on these workers. They sustain our farms. They are part of the fabric of many rural economies. Farm Bureau policy supports providing these workers the opportunity to earn permanent legal status. That is our goal and we will do everything to achieve it,” Duvall said.
Following the Western Growers board “no” vote, Nassif said, he will remain engaged with any legislators seeking workable solutions to growers’ labor crisis.
“But given the harm that would come to our growers from provisions of HR 4760, we must oppose the bill,” he said.
The Western Growers release said caps on visas of 410,000 the first year and 820,000 the second year are “unworkable” and “insufficient for the estimated need.” There’s an estimated 2 million illegal farmworkers in the U.S. with 400,000 to 500,000 alone in the West, the release states.