A farm labor bill has passed the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on a near party-line vote of 18-to-12, with the ranking Republican saying it doesn’t provide long-term wage stability.

“One need look no further than the first few pages to figure out the real point of this bill: a path to citizenship for an unknown number of illegal immigrants who do some work in agriculture, along with their families,” said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., in urging a no vote.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, formerly H.R. 4916 and now H.R. 5038, was introduced Oct. 30 by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.

The committee took a voice vote Nov. 20, followed by a recorded vote Nov. 21.

Newhouse called it an “excellent step forward for a bipartisan bill.” He said he hopes it passes the full House quickly and can be improved upon in the Senate.

Seeking to ensure a legal and sufficient agricultural workforce, the bill provides renewable visas for agricultural workers in the country illegally, phases in mandatory E-Verify (electronic verification of employment eligibility), amends the H-2A-visa agricultural foreign guestworker program and freezes the minimum wage of H-2A workers at 2019 levels throughout 2020.

Noting the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), the minimum wage for H-2A-visa workers, increased 6.3% in 2019, Collins said the bill fails to provide long-term stability in setting those rates. It allows increases up to 4.25% per year after a one-year freeze.

The U.S. Department of Labor certified 257,667 regular H-2A positions in 2019. The bill allows regular positions (of up to 10 months) to continue uncapped, but caps new year-round positions at 20,000 per year with half reserved for dairies.

It leaves out meat and poultry processing, forestry and aquaculture, Collins said, calling it an “enormous problem” because poultry employs more than 16,000 people in his congressional district.

Collins said H-2A users have asked for protection from frivolous lawsuits but the bill does the opposite by subjecting them to private right of action in federal court.

Users want the H-2A program managed by USDA and the bill does not do that, he said.

Collins argues the bill promotes fraudulent applications through extremely low document standards and the ability to withdraw a knowingly false application without prejudice. It allows aliens with multiple DUI convictions to get legal status, forgives and rewards Social Security fraud with a path to citizenship, he said.

The bill defines a work day as only 5.75 hours and requires only 100 of those per year to be eligible for renewable work visas and a path to citizenship, Collins said.

Prior to the committee action, more than 300 agricultural groups signed a letter supporting the bill but saying a few provisions “raise significant concerns” that should be worked on as the bill moves forward.

Dan Fazio, executive director of the farm labor association, Wafla, in Olympia, Wash., wrote an email to members prior to the committee action “strongly opposing” the bill because it “will not lead to a workable future flow” of workers needed. It doesn’t do enough to rein in escalating labor and housing costs, he said.

Wafla is the largest provider of H-2A-visa guestworkers in the West.

Fazio called the bill “mean-spirited and anti-farmer” because bill sponsors refuse to add a provision allowing farmers to charge foreign workers for housing.

“How is it fair that a farmer who petitions workers for H-2A visas must provide free housing while a landscape company bringing workers in to mow lawns in King County, Wash., can charge workers who are here with an H-2B visa?” he wrote.

Domestic workers who live within 30 or 40 miles of a farm are not eligible for free housing creating animus in the workforce, he said.

The failure to create fair housing “demonstrates an intent to kill the H-2A legal worker program, leaving farmers without a future workforce,” Fazio wrote.

Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers in Washington, D.C., said he was pleased with committee passage but that labor and housing costs hopefully can be addressed in the “more employer-friendly environment” of the Senate.

Marsh said the House Judiciary discussion was “not very acrimonious.” He said a couple Republicans indicated their no votes were soft and that Rep. Lofgren said she was willing to work to see if they could be satisfied.

Thirteen amendments were introduced in committee, 10 failed, two were withdrawn and one passed adding refugee farmworkers on temporary protected status to the new five-year visas, he said.

Following committee passage, U.S. Apple Association, Western Growers, California Farm Bureau Federation and the National Milk Producers Federation issued statements lauding committee passage.

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