House passes farm labor reform bill

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A bill that would create pathways to legal status for farm workers without legal status and update immigrant farm worker programs passed the U.S. House March 18.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 would let farm workers who have worked in the U.S. without legal status over the past two years get certified agriculture worker status, which would allow them and their families to stay in the U.S. for renewable periods of five and a half years at a time. The bill passed 247-174 and goes now to the Senate.

Farm workers without legal status are estimated to make up about half of the country’s agricultural workforce. The act previously passed the House in late 2019, but never made it through the Senate. More than 300 agricultural organizations, including the National Farmers Union, the National Milk Producers Federation and United Fresh Produce Association supported the bill then.

“Farm workers’ hard work has earned them the right to a stable future in the United States,” said Theresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers, which has supported the bill, in a March 18 statement. “The Farm Workforce Modernization Act honors the professionalism of those who feed the entire nation and much of the world.”

Details

Farm workers could also earn green cards under the act by paying a $1,000 fine and working up to another eight years in agriculture.

The bill also reforms the H-2A program, which allows farmers and other agricultural employers to hire temporary immigrant workers. It makes year-round H-2A visas available for the first time, streamlines the H-2A visa process and adds a mandatory electronic verification system for verifying farm workers’ legal statuses. It also caps wage increases.

Responses

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture applauded the bill’s passage, saying it could help address workforce challenges in agriculture.

“We’re encouraged that the Farm Workforce Modernization Act assures a future workforce for agriculture by creating both a flexible and efficient visa program that retains current workers,” said association chief executive officer Barb Glenn.

Other groups, including the National Farmers Union, United Fresh Produce Association, National Milk Producers Federation and National Young Farmers Coalition supported the bill.

Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, said the bill would create a more functional and compassionate system for farm labor.

For agricultural employers, it will streamline and allow for greater flexibility in the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, making it simpler to find and hire qualified employees. For workers, it will strengthen protections as well as establish a route to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment,” Larew said.

“The legislation will stabilize our current workforce and make improvements to ensure that a future workforce is available to meet the growing needs of the fresh produce industry,” said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO for United Fresh.

The National Milk Producers Federation said the bill’s passage with industry and bipartisan support emphasizes the need for farm labor reform. It called on the Senate to enact its own farm labor reform legislation.

White House

The Associated Press reported 30 Republican legislators voted in favor of the act, showing some bipartisan support. The White House issued a statement earlier March 18 in support of the bill. President Joe Biden has proposed major immigration overhauls.

“With legal status and a path to citizenship, farmworkers would be able to earn higher wages and exercise their rights under our labor laws to demand better working conditions. In turn, businesses that rely on farmworkers would have a more reliable and stable workforce,” the statement reads.

Other legislation

The House also passed the Dream and Promise Act, which would create pathways to citizenship for many immigrants under 18 who were brought to the U.S. illegally, known as “Dreamers,” and for many who came to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons, March 18.

The National Young Farmers Coalition has also endorsed two other immigration bills, the Citizenship Act of 2021 and the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act of 2021, both of which would also create pathways to citizenship for some farm workers without legal status.

(©2021 Farm and Dairy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. AP contributed to this report.)

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