House Approves Bill Giving Some Illegal Immigrant Farmworkers Amnesty

December 12, 2019 Updated: December 12, 2019
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The House of Representatives approved a measure on Dec. 11 that could give legal status to some illegal immigrants who work on farms.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed 260–165.

Democrats made up most of the approving votes with 226, while three voted against, one voted present, and three didn’t vote. Thirty-four Republicans voted for the bill and 161 Republicans voted against; two didn’t vote.

Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), who left the Republican Party earlier this year, voted no.

The bill includes a process that would let illegal alien farmworkers become a “Certified Agricultural Worker,” a designation lasting five-and-a-half years, if they’ve worked for at least six months on farms within the past two years.

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Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) speaks in Washington in a Dec. 9, 2019, file photograph. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The farmworkers can keep renewing the designation after it starts, or they and their families can start the process to get permanent legal status. A green card is granted to workers who have worked in agriculture for a decade or more and who work four more years, or to workers who have worked for fewer than 10 years on farms who work eight more years.

The bill also cuts some red tape that’s part of a visa program called H-2A, which lets farms source workers from outside the United States.

“This bill is a compromise. It’s not exactly what I would have written, but it does stabilize the workforce,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who sponsored the bill, said on the House floor.

“We have farmworkers who have been here for a very long time without their papers, living in fear and in some cases, being arrested and deported.”

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report (pdf), Americans make up about 75 percent of the 2.1 million workers in farming, fishing, and forestry. Illegal aliens make up approximately 325,000 of those in working in the industries.

Groups pushing for immigration reform criticized the bill.

“Absolutely disgraceful anti-modernity corporatist giveaway,” said Andrew Good, an analyst at NumbersUSA, in a statement.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform said in a statement that farms should hire Americans before bringing foreigners in on visas.

“These aren’t your small family farms. We’re talking about a huge mega-corporation. For 50 years, American voters have told these corporations to either use machinery for harvesting or find American workers. Yet big agriculture continues to demand and get a steady flow of foreign workers, usually here illegally,” it said.

Some groups that typically promote Democrats also voiced criticism.

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Farmer Lucas Richard harvests a crop of soybeans at a farm in Hickory, N.C., on Nov. 29, 2018. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) said in a letter (pdf) to Democratic House leaders: “Farmworker groups are not unanimous in their support for this bill. Community to Community (C2C), a farmworker advocacy organization in Bellingham, Washington, and others have concerns about the number of workers who will be able to take advantage of the pathway to legal residence and the unintended consequence of encouraging family separation by only offering permanent status to the visa holder.”

“UFCW is concerned that the Farm Workforce Modernization Act will expand the length of farmworker visas from seasonal to year-round and weaken the requirements to hire American workers. Currently, the H-2A program is for temporary or seasonal work and cannot be used to meet employers’ year-round agricultural labor needs. Allowing for year-round visas would increase the number of employers that might consider using the program and decrease wages for workers in other sectors.”

But lawmakers from both sides who voted for the bill said it will help farmers.

“I was proud to help the House pass this bipartisan legislation to ensure our farmers have access to a stable, legal workforce, allowing them to continue to produce abundant, safe, and affordable food,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said in a statement.

On the House floor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told lawmakers: “This legislation honors workers’ dignity and supports the farm economy with strong, smart reforms. The bill provides a path to legalization … for currently undocumented farmworkers. No one that feeds our country should be condemned to permanent second-class status.”

“The bill secures the agricultural workforce of the future by updating, expanding and strengthening the H-2A initiative to ensure farms have stable, secure workforces. And critically, it demands fair, humane treatment for farmworkers, following the lead of legislation in California by securing fairness in pay, improving access to quality housing, and ensuring robust safety and heat illness protections.”

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