House members introduce farm worker immigration bill |

House members introduce farm worker immigration bill

The Hagstrom Report
House Judiciary Immigration and Citizenship Chair Zoe Lundgren, D-Calif., presides over a news conference introducing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. To the right is United Farm Workers President Emeritus Arturo Rodriguez, who represented the union in the negotiations over the bill.
Photo by Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report

House members sponsoring the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a farm worker immigration bill, introduced it in the company of Arturo Rodriguez, president emeritus of the United Farm Workers and a range of farm owners and their lobbyists.

House Judiciary Immigration and Citizenship Chair Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said in a news release, “The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which was negotiated over several months with input from agricultural stakeholders and labor organizations, makes meaningful reforms to the H-2A agricultural guestworker program and creates a first-of-its-kind, merit-based visa program specifically designed for the nation’s agricultural sector.” Lofgren also released documents describing the bill in further detail.

The bill’s fate is uncertain. No Judiciary subcommittee or committee markup has been scheduled. McClatchy Newspapers reported that White House officials are unenthusiastic about the bill.

But that uncertainty did not diminish the enthusiasm of the sponsors, Rodriguez or farmers and their lobbyists who were present at a news conference Wednesday afternoon in the House Agriculture Committee hearing room.

Lofgren noted 24 Democrats and 20 Republicans as sponsors and said, “The men and women who work America’s farms feed the nation. But, farm workers across the country are living and working with uncertainty and fear, contributing to the destabilization of farms across the nation. Our bill offers stability for American farms by providing a path to legal status for farm workers. In addition, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act addresses the nation’s future labor needs by modernizing an outdated system for temporary workers, while ensuring fair wages and workplace conditions.”

Lofgren called Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Calif., her “partner” in developing the bill. Newhouse said American agriculture needs “a stable, legal and experienced workforce. H2A (a visa category for temporary farm workers) is broken and outdated. Agriculture is losing millions every year because we can’t get qualified workers.”

Newhouse added, “This was truly a bipartisan effort. We had all sides at the table.”

Rodriguez said, “This is truly a milestone. The bill will bring stability. Children won’t worry if their parents will come home. Workers can travel home for funerals, weddings and other events. After months of negotiations, the UFW and UFW Foundation are enthusiastic about passing legislation that honors all farm workers who feed America by creating a way for undocumented workers to apply for legal status and a roadmap to earn citizenship in the future without compromising farm workers’ existing wages and legal protections. Understanding that compromise is required to meaningfully improve the lives of immigrant field laborers, it is our hope this will be the first time the House of Representatives, under the leadership of either party, will approve an agricultural immigration bill.”

“America’s dairy farmers are eager to advance and improve this legislation as it moves through the Congress,” said Mike McCloskey, an Indiana dairy farmer and chairman of National Milk Producers Federation’s Immigration Taskforce. “As producers of a year-round product, dairy farmers face a unique labor crisis because our jobs are not seasonal or temporary. From our years of work on these issues, we know first-hand just how hard immigration reform is. But we simply cannot and will not stop working to find a solution. Dairy needs workers for our industry to sustain itself. It’s that simple, and it’s that dire.”

“This bill is for every consumer in the United States,” McCloskey said. “We can solve a true crisis and lead the world again.”

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, acknowledged that Congress has not wanted to consider immigration legislation for one sector but said that comprehensive legislation has gotten so complex the farm worker bill “might be a first step in getting immigration reform.”

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., told The Hagstrom Report that he has told the White House that farmers “have had a rough go” and that supporting this bill could prove that “the president loves farmers.” LaMalfa said that it would be better to pass a farm worker immigration bill on its own rather than “to throw this into some big ugly immigration conversation that’s off the mark.”

“Why wouldn’t we want to give them legal status” rather than stay involved “in border problems and fake IDs and Social Security numbers” that force people to “look the other way?” LaMalfa said.

Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., who represents what he calls the nation’s “salad bowl,” said, “In my district, we don’t have the crops you can send the machine through.” Instead, he said, farmers need workers who can pick the fruit and vegetables that consumers will buy.

Many commodity groups issued news releases endorsing the bill. U.S. Apple Association President and CEO Jim Bair told The Hagstrom Report that each year he speaks to farmers who tell him they are leaving $100,000 to $200,000 in apples on the trees because they can’t get people to pick them. The bill that Lofgren and Newhouse have developed is an example of policymaking the way it used to be done before partisanship became so bitter, Bair added.

The California Farm Bureau Federation has endorsed the bill, but the American Farm Bureau Federation has not. Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said he did not know why the national organization has not endorsed it, and Lofgren said she and her staff are still talking with Farm Bureau about how to get their support. ❖