House passes Ag workforce bill

The House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act today, March 19, by a vote to 247 to 174.

Thirty Republicans joined 217 Democrats in voting for the bill, which would provide a path for legal status for farmworkers who are in the United States without legal documents.

Earlier the House passed the American Dream and Promise Act, a bill that would allow the young people known as “Dreamers” who entered the United States as children without legal status to stay in the country. The vote was 228 to 197.

After the passage of the bills, President Biden endorsed both.

Of the farmworkers bill, Biden said, “Farmworkers are vital to the wellbeing of our country and our economy.”

“For generations, America’s farmworkers — many of whom are undocumented — have worked countless hours to feed our nation and ensure our communities are healthy and strong. This has been even more clear and crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, as farmworkers have put their lives and the lives of their loved ones on the line to ensure that families across the country have food on the table.

“This is why I support the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 and celebrate its passage. The act will deliver the lawful status and better working conditions that this critical workforce deserves, as well as much needed stability for farmers, growers, and the entire agriculture industry.

“My administration is ready to work with leaders on both sides of the aisle to address the needs of our essential workers, bring greater dignity and security to our agricultural sector, and finally enact the long-term solutions we need to create a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system, in addition to tackling the root causes of migration to the United States.”

One Democrat, Jared Golden of Maine, did not vote for the bill. House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., was among the eight Republican members who did not vote.

House Judiciary Immigration and Citizenship Chair Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a primary sponsor of the ag workforce bill, said, “The men and women who work America’s farms feed the nation.”

“But many of them do so while living and working in a state of uncertainty and fear, which has only been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Stabilizing the workforce will protect the future of our farms and our food supply.

“The Farm Workforce Modernization Act accomplishes this by providing a path to legal status for farmworkers and updating and streamlining the H-2A temporary worker visa program while ensuring fair wages and working conditions for all workers. I look forward to working with senators on both sides of the aisle to get this bipartisan legislation that serves the best interests of our country to the president’s desk.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., Lofgren’s co-sponsor, said, “In the first two and a half months of 2021, illegal immigration has reached a crisis point. In order to maintain the rule of law and keep criminals out of our country, Congress must continue working to enhance our border security.”

“One way to enhance our border security is the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which is the bipartisan, targeted labor solution our agriculture industry needs,” Newhouse said.

“By creating a viable and desperately-needed agriculture labor program, we are removing opportunities to work illegally in the United States, strengthening our border security, and ensuring we have a reliable, legal workforce for our farms and ranches for years to come. Today’s passage marks an important step forward for farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to get it to the president’s desk and deliver historic and meaningful reforms for American agriculture.”

House Agriculture Committee Chair David Scott, D-Ga., said, “A stable supply of labor is essential to our U.S. agriculture industry thriving in the face of ongoing competition. I will be a passionate voice for a workable resolution to a problem that for too long has been ignored.”

“I want to thank Chair Lofgren and Rep. Newhouse for their leadership on this bipartisan compromise bill, and I will continue to work with them and our stakeholders as we engage our Senate colleagues to make improvements to this needed legislation,” Scott said.Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., the second highest ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee in seniority, praised the passage of both the Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.

Earlier in the day, Costa, the descendant of Portuguese farmers in the Central Valley of California, participated in a news conference with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to promote passage of the bill.

During that news conference Costa noted that his grandparents came to the United States as immigrants who milked cows, and that as a child he worked “side by side” with farmworkers on his family’s farm in the San Joaquin Valley.

The day would be “a good day for immigration reform,” Costa said. “Food is a national security issue, we often take it for granted.”

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have come to understand the importance of food and the importance of farm workers, he added.

It is ”simply wrong” for farm workers to work “under the shadow of the fear of deportation” and to fear family separation, Costa added.

After the bill passed, Costa said he wanted to commend Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Lofgren on their leadership in getting the pieces of legislation to the floor.

“Providing a path to legal status to farm workers for the betterment of our country is long overdue,” Costa said.

“American agriculture needs a reliable legal workforce and farm workers deserve to be treated as the essential workers they are. Farmers and farm workers provide a vital and essential partnership that puts food on America’s dinner tables every night. Therefore, the food we eat is a national security issue. This legislation, if passed, would ensure the reliability of America’s food supply remains secured.”

Ruiz said Costa played “an instrumental role in drafting and passing the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Congressman Costa is a champion for farmworker communities and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus applauds his leadership and dedication.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., said “In our one-on-one and direct conversations with me, Central Virginia farms, agribusinesses, and greenhouses have been clear that the existing H-2A program is in fundamental need of reforms. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act provides much-needed changes to our immigration system, including the H-2A program.”

United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero said, “Farm workers’ hard work has earned them the right to a stable future in the United States. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act honors the professionalism of those who feed the entire nation and much of the world. It is the result of thoughtful compromise among bipartisan lawmakers, agricultural employers and farm workers.”

“Today’s votes are the direct result of decades of determination by farm workers and undocumented youth fighting for their right to keep their homes in the United States,” added UFW Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres.

“This is an opportunity for the nation to acknowledge that farm workers have always been essential, putting food on the tables of Americans even during a pandemic. This is the year to get it done.”

During a news conference after the vote, Arturo Rodriguez, the former UFW president who negotiated many of the provisions, noted that many farm workers are regular farm employees and less migratory than in the past.National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President and CEO Chuck Conner said, “Today’s bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives to pass H.R. 1603, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, is a critical step towards achieving many of the long-standing immigration reform goals of NCFC and others in agriculture.”

“With the House’s action today, I strongly urge the Senate to take up, without delay, similar legislation that addresses the labor crisis hitting farmers across the country.

“While NCFC and its members have concerns with some provisions of the FWMA, the bill provides an excellent starting point for the Senate to begin work on the issue. We look forward to working with the Senate to ensure that their legislation achieves our key objectives: addressing both the current and future needs of agricultural employers; ensuring that programs work for all types of producers; and providing certainty for both farmers and farmworkers moving forward.”

National Association of State Departments of Agriculture CEO Barb Glenn said, “Systems that establish a secure, reliable workforce for the agriculture, food and natural resource industries are necessary to our food supply.”

“An estimated half of the U.S. agricultural workforce is foreign-born, and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act will provide opportunities for these individuals to contribute to the U.S. agricultural economy and earn legal status through continued agricultural employment,” Glenn said.

The bill would make year-round H-2A visas available for the first time, an action that would be transformational for agricultural operations like dairies that currently rely only on temporary labor, Glenn noted.

National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said, “The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is a mutually beneficial solution that will create a more functional and compassionate farm labor system.”

“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,” Larew said. “For workers, it will strengthen protections as well as establish a route to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment. Given its advantages for both parties, we welcome this practical piece of legislation and advise the Senate to quickly follow the House’s lead by taking up the important issue of farm labor reform.”

United Fresh Produce Association President Tom Stenzel said, “Today, the House of Representatives took an important step towards reforming our agricultural labor system by passing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.”

“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,” Stenzel said. “Now our efforts turn to the Senate where we will work to further improve the bill and garner similar bipartisan support for this legislation.”

Stenzel noted that 350 members of United Fresh had sent letters to Congress supporting the bill.

Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia said, “Today’s vote reconfirms the reality that well-crafted and durable legislation requires the input of thoughtful and pragmatic lawmakers from both parties.”

“We thank the House members who led this effort and all who voted in favor of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act,” Puglia said. “Next, we urge senators of both parties to begin their consideration of this legislation in a similar construct, guided by a desire to produce legislation negotiated with both agriculture and labor advocates and supported by senators of both parties.

“The need for a solution to agriculture’s labor crisis has been widely accepted across party lines. Furthermore, the remedy, which addresses both the existing workforce and the future flow of workers, has been negotiated in painstaking detail and agreed to by advocates representing farmers and farmworkers alike.

“The Senate never took up this legislation after it passed the House in 2019 and the problem has predictably worsened. Americans want to see Congress work on real problems and real solutions and spend less time in ideological conflict. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act affords the Senate a powerful opportunity to meet that expectation.”

The dairy industry is not as pleased with the bill, but issued supportive comments.

National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern said, “Today’s bipartisan passage of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in the House of Representatives provides crucial momentum toward addressing dairy’s ongoing workforce crisis, which has only intensified during the COVID pandemic.”

“Nothing gets done if we cannot move forward. The broad industry and bipartisan support for passing FWMA in the House demonstrates the acute need for ag labor reform this Congress and illustrates that consensus can be achieved.

“On that note, more work will need to be done for ag labor solutions to become law. NMPF will continue its bipartisan efforts in Congress and calls on the Senate to enact its own ag labor reform measure that gives dairy reliable access to the workforce farmers and farmworkers need to nourish the nation and the world,” Mulhern said.

International Dairy Foods Association President and CEO Michael Dykes added, “Among its many important provisions, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would create a new year-round visa program and appropriately addresses dairy’s labor needs.”

“America’s dairy industry produces the safest, most nutritious, and most affordable variety of dairy products to consumers around the world, but without a reliable, predictable guestworker program to ensure legal labor remains available, our industry cannot obtain and process enough milk to meet global demand,” Dykes said.

The California Farm Bureau Federation said it was pleased to see the bill advance and that it will work with California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, both Democrats, “to seek refinements to the bill’s guestworker provisions before a Senate vote.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation did not make a statement on the bill.


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