Western Growers look for a better version of the ag guest worker program. ( File photo )

Western Growers and the California Farm Bureau, citing issues important to produce growers, are pushing back on Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s AG Act, which the American Farm Bureau Federation is supporting.

Even with recent revisions to the bill, which would establish an H-2C guest worker program, Western Growers can’t support it, president and CEO Tom Nassif said.

The latest version of the AG Act doesn’t deliver, he said, in part because of a “touch back” provision that requires existing falsely documented workers in the U.S. to return to their country of origin before they could participate in H-2C.

Getting those workers — whom Nassif calls “saviors” for the fresh produce industry — a pathway to citizenship or legal status has been a fruitless mission so far, despite Nassif working with House Judiciary Committee, of which Goodlatte is the chairman, since 2013.

Goodlatte’s guest worker bill has now been folded into a broader bill by House Republicans called the Securing America’s Future Act.

The broader bill includes funds for the border wall, border security, agricultural guest worker reform and provides an extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Western Growers would work with Goodlatte if H2-C accommodated the existing workforce, but Nassif said the lawmaker won’t budge on that issue.

“Continuing to work with him is a dead end,” Nassif said Feb. 21. “The only thing we can do is prevent the Goodlatte bill from being passed and hope that we can present a bill that works for all of agriculture,” he said.

Nassif believes many falsely documented workers living in the U.S. for years would not want to risk the touch back process, possibly leaving behind family with only the prospect of returning to the U.S. as a guest worker and no easy pathway to legal status. Nassif said the new H-2C guest worker program’s cap on the number of workers is a significant long-term problem for the program.

Despite reservations about the AG Act’s effect on the existing workforce, the American Farm Bureau Federation called on all members of Congress to support the legislation.

There is a great deal of concern among agricultural employers about the cap in the H-2C program and also the treatment of existing workers, said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. Goodlatte’s plan would allow up to 900,000 guest workers in the U.S. after the first year because annual visas of 450,000 would be granted for two-year increments, but Marsh said that still isn’t enough for an U.S. agriculture workforce now estimated at close to 2.5 million workers.


Path ahead

Nassif said Goodlatte’s bill doesn’t seem to have the support it needs to pass in the House. Even if it passed the House, he said the bill was going “nowhere” in the Senate.

Nassif said most of labor-intensive agriculture is opposed to the bill.

There may be another chance in 2018 to deal with immigration reform that deals with agriculture labor, he said.


Changes to the H-2C Program through the Securing America’s Future for Agriculture

  •  Allow farmers to “preapprove/precertify” workers before they leave the U.S.: The change allows farmers to seek and receive preapproval of their H-2C petitions for their current workforce before their workers leave the country;
  • Extended touch-back window: The change extends the period of time following implementation of the H-2C program during which unlawful farmworkers must complete their touch-back from six months to one year;
  • Lengthened visa term: The change extends the standard visa term from eighteen months to 24 months while keeping the time period required for workers to return home at 45 days. That would increase the total number of agricultural workers subject to the cap who could be in the U.S. at any one time to 900,000 after the first year of the program, because each year a total of 450,000 new workers would be allowed to obtain visas under the cap and stay for two years;
  • Extend the E-Verify effective date as it applies to agriculture: Extends the implementation of E-Verify for requirement for agricultural employers from 18 months to 24 months.
  • Expedited at-will employment: The change requires the Department of Homeland Security to implement technology to support at-will employment under the H-2C program no later than 24 months after enactment and allows at will employment no later than 24 months after enactment.

Source: House Judiciary Committee