California farmworkers

Farmworkers pick jalapeno peppers near Gilroy, Calif. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is headed for the U.S. Senate.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the second time in as many years, the U.S. House has passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a comprehensive bill that offers a path to legal status for undocumented agricultural workers. 

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., passed March 18 by a vote of 247-174. All but one Democrat supported the measure, and 30 Republicans also voted in favor.

Immediately after the floor vote, Newhouse and Lofgren held a virtual press conference with members of national farm labor and industry groups that strongly backed the legislation. 

While the bill isn't perfect, Lofgren said it is important for the Senate to get it over the finish line in order to provide a reliable pool of labor for farms. 

"We've had a very hard year in America with the pandemic, but one of the things that has been a shining light is that the food supply was never disrupted," Lofgren said. "We owe our farmers and farmworkers of America for that. We owe them our thanks, and we owe them this bill." 

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is broken down into three sections.

First, the bill allows domestic farmworkers to seek temporary status as a "Certified Agricultural Worker" if they have worked at least 180 days in agriculture over the last two years.

Workers can then apply for a green card based on several criteria. Those with at least 10 years of previous agricultural experience would need to complete four more years of farm work before they are eligible. Those with less than 10 years of experience would need to work eight more years. Applicants are also subject to background checks. 

The second part of the bill makes several reforms to the H-2A guestworker program. Among the changes are consolidating the filing process, capping wages and opening the program to year-round industries, including nurseries and dairies. 

The third section would make E-Verify mandatory for all farms to determine their employees' work eligibility. The online system allows employers to immediately verify their status.

Newhouse said Congress has spent decades trying to fix the farm labor issue.

"It's exciting to feel like we may be on the precipice of getting this done," he said. 

The bill has garnered support from more than 300 organizations — including growers in Oregon. 

Dave Puglia, president and CEO of Western Growers, said the bill "provides a thoughtful and pragmatic solution to agriculture's labor crisis, and addresses the co-equal goals of securing the existing workforce and ensuring a future flow of workers." 

Western Growers represents farms in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico that produce roughly half of all U.S. produce and two-thirds of all tree nuts. 

Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, said the bill provides a boost to the dairy industry by providing up to 20,000 H-2A visas for year-round agricultural businesses. 

"Most of the milk produced in this country comes from farms with immigrant labor," Mulhern said. "All of us in agriculture know how essential our workforce is." 

Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said he was pleased to see the bill pass again in the House, with support from the entire Oregon delegation, including Rep. Cliff Bentz, the state's only Republican in Congress.

Nursery and greenhouse crops are Oregon's top agricultural commodity, with production valued at more than $955 million in 2019. Stone said the legislation is the top priority for his organization's federal agenda.

"This can has been kicked down the road for so long," Stone said. "It's time for the Senate now to do its duty and pass this thing." 

Shay Myers, CEO of Owyhee Produce in Nyssa, Ore., and Parma, Idaho, said the bill is a step in the right direction, providing a path for workers to remain in the U.S. while deterring future illegal border crossings through the use of E-Verify.

"This bill allows those who are already here and working to get legal worker status," Myers said. "It also allows for businesses to continue to hire H-2A workers, and for our industry to use E-Verify. E-Verify will prevent more undocumented workers from crossing illegally into the United States because they will no longer be employable."

Support for the bill, however, is not universal among growers.

Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that while the bill addresses some needs, it contains flaws and shortcomings.

"We need guestworker visa reform, increased access to fill farm jobs, and a market-based wage rate that allows farmers to remain economically viable," Crittenden said. "We recognize the efforts of Reps. Lofgren and Newhouse on this issue and look forward to working with the Senate and our industry partners to ensure we find an immigration solution that works for all." 

Dan Fazio, executive director of Wafla, a major H-2A employer based in Olympia, Wash., said the bill falls short of creating a workable future-flow program.

The bill still requires H-2A employers to provide free housing and transportation for workers, which Wafla has argued puts them at a competitive disadvantage. It also allows allows private right of action for H-2A workers to sue their employers for the first time, Fazio said, creating a massive new legal liability.

Fazio said he believes changes to the proposal are coming in the Senate version of the bill, where Democrats have a much narrower advantage. 

"We will need a workable guest worker program going forward," Fazio said. "Unfortunately, the House bill didn't have that." 

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