New immigration bill would create ‘chaos,’ ag leader says

Jeff Stone, director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, says a new immigration reform bill could leave farmers short of workers.

The latest U.S. House bill aimed at immigration reform and a DACA fix would create “chaos for farmers and their workers,” an Oregon nursery leader says.

“The inclusion of E-verify (electronic employment eligibility verification) before a transition plan for current workers and implementation of an agricultural visa system could be harmful to much of agriculture throughout the U.S.,” said Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries in Wilsonville, Ore. “The only certainty will be chaos for farmers and their workers.”

Between 50 and 70 percent of tree fruit and vegetable workers are estimated to be illegal immigrants, so growers fear the use of E-verify without first providing a legal work status for them would devastate their workforce.

“My hope is that this is not the first and final offer because I am not sure agriculture is better off under this proposal,” Stone said.

The Securing America’s Future Act, HR 4760, was introduced by House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., and several other committee chairmen on Jan. 10.

It seeks to bolster immigration enforcement, reform legal immigration programs, secure the U.S.-Mexico border and grant recipients of DACA a three-year renewable legal status, allowing them to work and travel overseas but with no special paths to a permanent work status known as green cards.

DACA, the acronym for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, currently allows some people who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country illegally, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. It is being phased out.

Capital Press also requested comment from about 20 other representatives of labor-intensive agriculture. They either did not respond or said they are studying the bill.

The bill also increases the number of green cards available in three skilled worker categories from 120,000 to 175,000 annually, a 45 percent increase. It includes Goodlatte’s H-2C guestworker plan to provide a flow of farmworkers, apparently replacing the H-2A program. It also requires employers to use E-verify within two years.

Stone said HR 4092, Goodlatte’s proposal setting up H-2C, is “pretty flawed” because if illegal immigrants do what it requests, growers won’t have enough workers. HR 4092 requires them to abandon their jobs, return to Mexico and apply for re-entry under H-2C, which has a cap of 450,000 workers annually. The current H-2A guestworker program has no cap.

The U.S. Department of Labor authorized 200,049 H-2A visas in 2017, which represents about 10 percent of the nation’s more than 2 million seasonal ag workers, according to the National Council of Agricultural Employers. There are also about 500,000 year-round or permanent ag workers.

If 70 percent of the 2 million seasonal workers leave the country, that’s 1.4 million. If only 450,000 are allowed to return under the new H-2C program, that creates a shortage of 1 million.

“That’s the math I’m trying to come to grips with,” Stone said. “We want a comprehensive bill but we have to be able to live through the process.”

The new bill, HR 4760, ends the lottery that provides 50,000 green cards to citizens of underrepresented nations, chain migration in which citizens and permanent residents are allowed to sponsor non-nuclear family members for immigration and reduces the legal immigration limit by 25 percent from 1,060,000 people.

The bill also authorizes border wall construction and advanced technology border security. It secures the ports of entry, adds 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 5,000 Customs and Border Protection officers. It authorizes the use of the National Guard for aviation and intelligence support of border security.

The bill further cracks down on sanctuary cities, facilitates cooperation with local law enforcement, includes Kate’s Law to increase penalties for deported criminals who return to the U.S. and addresses visa overstays.

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