A farm labor bill that would make undocumented workers eligible for visas and provide a path to long-term residency has won the support of Valley lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act was introduced in the House on Wednesday. The bipartisan list of co-sponsors includes Valley Democrats Rep. Jim Costa and T.J. Cox as well as Republican Devin Nunes.

Official congressional portrait of Jim Costa

“There is a fear that I have not seen before, in the last several years, of deportation as the result of no-match letters and these (employment) audits.” — Rep. Jim Costa (D – Fresno)

Costa: Fear Contributing to Labor Shortage

Costa said the bill is necessary to reverse a significant shortage of farm labor that is impacting California’s agricultural economy. Current federal immigration enforcement policies are making the problem worse, he said.

“There is a fear that I have not seen before, in the last several years, of deportation as the result of no-match letters and these (employment) audits,” Costa said. The result, he said, is fewer farm laborers who are willing to risk deportation by working.

“We know the majority of farmworkers in California are undocumented, and therefore they don’t have legal status,” Costa said. “That’s why this legislation is so important.”

Bill Would Create Renewable 5-Year Ag Visas

Under the bill, an undocumented worker who has worked in agriculture for at least six months would be eligible for renewable 5-year agricultural visas. Those who have worked in agriculture for at least 10 years would be eligible to apply for permanent resident status. Those workers would be required to pay a $1,000 fine and continue to work in the agriculture industry for another four years.

Costa said labor shortages in the last year have resulted in the loss of over 89,000 agriculture jobs across California.

The bill would also create a new three-year temporary visa program for agriculture and mandate the use of the federal E-Verify system for agricultural companies nationwide.

“In over 25 years, this is the very first time we have ever had a bipartisan bill in the House of Representatives on immigration,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who helped craft the legislation.

“This comprehensive legislation contains key elements that address current and future workforce needs for agricultural employers and employees in California and throughout the nation.” — Jamie Johansson, California Farm Bureau President

“It was really built from the ground up with stakeholders talking to each other,” Lofgren said. Discussions over the past 8 months included the United Farm Workers union and growers “working through issues, accompanied by Republican and Democratic members of the house, reaching a conclusion.”

“So, that’s a new approach.”

Republican Co-Sponsors Generate Optimism

In addition to 24 Democrats, the bill counts 21 Republicans among its co-sponsors. The California Farm Bureau issued a statement Wednesday supporting the bill.

“This comprehensive legislation contains key elements that address current and future workforce needs for agricultural employers and employees in California and throughout the nation,” CFBF President Jamie Johansson said in a news release.

(Dairy farmers) told me, ‘Look, I voted for the president. I didn’t vote for you. But, I don’t have Republican cows or Democratic cows. I just have cows that need help.'”— Rep. Josh Harder (D – Modesto)

“The reforms in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 will provide much-needed solutions for agricultural employers and employees.”

Modesto Congressman Josh Harder (D) said agriculture interests in his district have also been supportive.

“I sat down a couple of months ago to talk about this effort with a lot of our dairy farmers,” said Harder. “They told me, ‘Look, I voted for the president. I didn’t vote for you. But, I don’t have Republican cows or Democratic cows. I just have cows that need help.'”

Under the bill, dairies and farms would have access to year-round labor under the H-2A visa program. The program now covers only seasonal workers.

Harder said the bipartisan collaboration in creating the bill is the key difference over past efforts to address farm labor needs.

“That’s why, in an era of divided government, I think this has a chance to go all the way and get across the finish line,” Harder said.

“If anything happens on immigration, it’s going to be this.”

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