Bill to Boost the Labor Force and Reshape Farm Labor Passes House

On December 11th, 2019 the House of Representatives passed R. 5038, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, with a bipartisan majority.   Maine’s Representative Chellie Pingree is a co-sponsor of the bill.  The bill was developed with the involvement of agribusiness and farm labor groups, and like all legislation resulting from complex negotiations, there is plenty to both like and dislike.  Nonetheless, the bill makes great strides towards overdue positive changes of portions of our nation’s outdated immigration laws.

The bill provides a relatively quick path to a new “certified agricultural worker” (CAW) status for undocumented agricultural workers who have been working on U.S. farms for years (and their spouses and under 21 year old, unmarried children), and a much longer path (after up to 8 years additional years of farm work) to permanent residency.  CAW farm workers could work anywhere in the U.S., for any size farm, boosting the available labor supply for small farms such as those in Maine that can’t afford to participate in the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program

The bill would also revise the H-2A agricultural worker program substantially, providing visas valid for up to 3.5 years, newly available for year-round, not just seasonal, work.  These changes will reduce bureaucracy for farmers, and will especially benefit dairy and other farm operations that have year-round labor demands.  Under the bill,  H-2A workers would also benefit from a new path to permanent residency after 10 years of H-2A work.

Other changes to the H-2A program touch upon wages, worker protections, housing requirements, transportation and subsistence payments for H-2A workers, and protections against unscrupulous foreign labor recruiters.  The bill introduces a new “portability” pilot program that would allow employers to register, and H-2A workers to work for any registered employers without first needing to have petitions filed on their behalves.

The bill also would revamp the current E-Verify electronic employment authorization verification system, and require that all agricultural employers, including small farms comprised of as few as 2 persons, use it.  Mandatory E-Verify for this sector of the economy may be a slippery slope towards a costly nationwide mandate for all employers. The proposed revisions for electronic verification do seem like they may be improvements over the current flawed E-verify system, but the program will be mandated for the agricultural sector before the new version has even been tested.

Nonetheless, despite  that latter shortcoming, this bill is worth supporting. The bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee after its passage in the House.  There is unfortunately no indication of when or whether the Senate will take the bill up.