Ag groups want Goodlatte bill to address illegal immigrants

Several agricultural trade associations are heartened that a bill addressing agricultural guestworker issues is moving in the U.S. House of Representatives, but they don’t think it does enough to retain the current workforce, much of which is in the U.S. illegally.

While praising House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., for moving his Agricultural Guestworker Act out of that committee to the floor, several issues must be resolved to ensure the bill meets the current and future labor needs of growers, said Kate Woods, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Association in Yakima, Wash.

The Judiciary Committee removed protections for current workers when a new H-2C-visa replaces the existing H-2A visa, and those workers would be required to return to their home country to apply for H-2C visas, Woods said.

That and a cap of 450,000 annual H-2C visas are problematic, she said.

“During the committee process several changes were made that would make this bill unworkable, particularly when coupled with expedited mandatory E-Verify. We must ensure practical and reasonable solutions are achieved for both the current and future workforce that American farmers depend on in order for our industry to remain competitive,” Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers in Irvine, Calif., said in a prepared statement.

The Agricultural Workforce Coalition in Washington, D.C., issued a statement saying workable solutions for current and future workforce needs must accompany mandatory E-Verify, which is the electronic verification of employment eligibility.

Kerry Scott, program manager of masLabor, Lovingston, Va., the nation’s leading supplier of H-2A and H-2B foreign guestworkers, said it will be difficult to get the bill through the current Congress, which runs through 2018.

“Right or wrong, there are enemies on both extremes and probably not enough friends in the middle,” Scott said.

He said he lives in Goodlatte’s district, is an old friend and that Goodlatte is well suited for the task by being a former immigration attorney and former Agriculture Committee chairman.

No requirements to house and transport workers and a lower required wage are improvements, although most employers will likely continue paying more and furnishing housing and transportation, Scott said.

The current Adverse Effect Wage Rate for H-2A workers requires everyone be paid a high wage, but wages should reflect experience and skill, he said.

The new bill requires employers pay the greater of: the state or local minimum wage, 115 percent of the federal minimum wage (150 percent for meat or poultry processing), or the actual wage paid to others for the same job.

Having USDA administer an H-2C program will be better for employers but allowing workers to initially stay for three years is worrisome because they may “lose touch with their families back home and start making new families here,” Scott said.

The bill requires workers to leave the U.S. for 45 days or for one-twelfth of their stay.

The cap of 450,000 visas annually shouldn’t be a problem because there is a cap escalator, he said.

Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association in Yakima, questioned the need for a cap when the bill still requires employers to demonstrate a lack of domestic workers.

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