Farmers across the United States need a reliable workforce, and the H-2A guest worker visa program could use reform. Enter HR5038, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, which was reintroduced as HR1603, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, by Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) and Dan Newhouse (R-Washington).
The farm modernization immigration bill addresses the ability of U.S. farmers to employ and contract with foreign farm workers. One key way it seeks to do that is by making it easier for some immigrants to qualify for H-2A farm visas (commonly referred to as simply the H2A visa). This visa type allows U.S. employers to bring foreign workers into the country for temporary agricultural work.
Proposed Changes to Immigration Law
In particular, the act would alter current immigration law in two key ways:
- By offering permanent legal status to some undocumented farm workers and their families. Currently, many farmers are technically in violation of federal law by legally employing undocumented immigrants to fill jobs most Americans don’t want.
- By expanding legal immigration for future immigrants seeking farm work in the United States, creating a reliable and legal source of labor for U.S. farmers. It would accomplish this by
- Allowing H-2A visa holders to stay in the country year-round
- Creating pathways to achieving legal permanent status for these individuals
- Eliminating redundant review of applications
- Eliminating the requirement to apply for a new visa on a yearly basis
Why Some Oppose HR5038
While the bill has gained support from many agriculture organizations, it is not as favorable to either U.S. farmers or immigrant workers as it may seem at first glance. Objections to the bill include concerns that
- A cap on H-2A visas of about 20,000 is too low to accommodate farmers’ need for nonseasonal agricultural workers, especially since half of those are reserved for dairy workers.
- Mass amnesty can result in the mass exodus of undocumented immigrants from the agricultural industry, where they are direly needed.
- The bill’s call to use e-verify both is logistically problematic and exposes farmers to liability over their employment practices.
- It would lead to increased reliance on foreign countries for agricultural goods.
- The bill would expose farmers to litigation from their workers, as it would provide H-2A workers claiming H-2A violations with attorneys at taxpayers’ expense.
- The exclusion of construction applications from the visa program would add to farmers’ costs of raising livestock and require companies that raise livestock to rely on the restrictive H-2B visa program.
- It creates a new liability for farmers for recruiting violations abroad and gives the U.S. Department of Labor the authority to sue farmers for damages.
- It provides no relief from the high cost of the H-2A visa program for farmers by failing to address the high cost of housing and providing only a one-year Adverse Effective Wage Rate (AEWR) freeze.
- The bill authorizes class-action lawsuits and damages of up to $500,000, and although it allows farmers to request mediation, it does not require that opposing parties engage in mediation.
Given the bill’s many shortcomings, it will likely result in increased, long-term labor shortages for the agricultural sector and increased liability for farmers. Ultimately, this is likely to lead to increased costs for farmers, who will be forced to pass on those increased costs to consumers.
In addition, as more foreign farm workers become legal residents, many will leave the agricultural industry for other work opportunities. That would make the United States increasingly reliant on foreign sources of agricultural products.
Farm Workforce Modernization Act Status
The bill passed in the House of Representatives with support across the aisle. However, it still has to pass in the Senate, and a vote is expected soon as of this writing. While perhaps well intentioned, this legislation represents a compromise that doesn’t help either U.S. farmers or undocumented workers very much and will actually harm some farmers.
What You Can Do
If you’d like your voice heard on this legislation, you may contact your representative and let them know you want meaningful H-2A reform that will keep food production in the U.S. and ensure that U.S. farmers are able to continue competing with low-cost imported food.
You can also sign a petition to indicate your stance. One petition on the Action Network states: “The proposed bill does nothing to address the root causes of labor exploitation that farmworkers face on a daily basis and would ultimately make conditions even more difficult for farm workers across the country. That is why many farmworker organizations and respected national food justice, labor, and immigrant rights groups across the country are opposing this bill.”
Initial signatories include the Food Chain Workers Alliance, Families United for Justice, Rural & Migrant Ministry, and Justice for Migrant Workers.