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Legislation that would protect farmworkers from deportation and give them a path toward legal status is a partial answer to the immigration reform problem, industry leaders say.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Zoe Lofgren — both Democrats from California — introduced legislation called the Agricultural Worker Program Act that would shield farmworkers from deportation and put them on a path toward earned legal status and eventual citizenship, according to a news release.

The legislation would allow farmworkers who have worked in agriculture for at least 100 days in the past two years to earn “blue card” status that allows them to continue to legally work in the U.S. 

Additionally, farmworkers who maintain blue card status for the next three years or five years—depending on hours worked in agriculture—would be eligible to adjust to lawful permanent residence (green card), according to the release.

“We recognize and applaud the efforts of Senator Feinstein and Representative Lofgren, as well as many other members of the House and Senate, to address the acute labor shortage that plagues production agriculture,” Western Growers’ president and CEO Tom Nassif said in a statement. 

“Farm labor is incredibly challenging work that most native-born Americans are not interested in pursuing so we have long relied upon a skilled workforce who are new migrants to our country as well as guest workers,” he said. 

Nassif said in the statement that growers need legislation that will create a new guest worker visa program and also provide a workable path to legalization for our existing workforce and their families. 

Big numbers

Feinstein said a report from UC Davis estimates that up to 60% of California’s 421,000 farmworkers are undocumented.

“Farmers throughout California struggle mightily to find workers, and we all know that backbreaking farm labor is performed largely by undocumented immigrants,” Feinstein said in the release. “By protecting farmworkers from deportation, our bill would ensure that hardworking immigrants don’t live in fear and that California’s agriculture industry has the workforce it needs to succeed. Despite their significant contributions to California’s economy and communities, farmworkers are a priority for deportation under the Trump administration’s policies. We must protect the families who help put food on our tables.”

On Jan. 18, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s president Zippy Duvall praised the approach to help solve the agricultural labor crisis.

“The labor shortage is a major constraint to farm production and growth across the country, and solving this problem is a priority for Farm Bureau,” Duvall said in a news release. “Rep. Lofgren’s bill addresses one key aspect of the problem, the legal status of so many of our workers.” He said Farm Bureau will work with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to also develop a guest worker program that meets the needs of growers in all sectors of agriculture.

“The Agricultural Worker Program Act appears to be similar to the “blue card” piece that was part of the comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2013,” said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. “I think it would help take care of existing workforce (but) we also have to have another piece to help fix legislatively some of those things with the H-2A program so that we can have a functional future flow of workers program that works better than what we’ve got today,” he said.

On a related note, Marsh said the continuing government shutdown so far hasn’t held up the visa work needed to process Mexican H-2A workers.

“That’s something we are keeping an eye on,” he said.

Meanwhile, the council’s lawsuit to stop the 2019 increase in adverse effect wage rates for the H-2A program is scheduled for a court hearing on Jan. 28.

Marsh said the NCAE hopes the court will allow a preliminary injunction against the wage rate hike and give the NCAE a chance to work with the Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine appropriate wage rates for the program.

“(The higher) wage rates in place are really going to harm farmers here in the U.S. if they end up having to pay them for the whole year,” Marsh said.