A bill aimed at addressing the worker shortage in agriculture and the uncertainty of the farm labor workforce, which has high rates of undocumented workers, passed the House of Representatives Thursday with bipartisan support.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, coauthored and sponsored by Congressman Mike Simpson, would create a program that allows agricultural workers and their families to earn legal status and would make changes to the H-2A program.
The bill was introduced in 2019. It has support from 34 Idaho agriculture organizations.
“Workforce uncertainty in eastern Idaho hurts both producers and consumers alike, and this bill sets us on the right path towards ending the workforce crisis, stabilizing rural economies, and discouraging illegal border crossings,” Simpson said in a statement on Friday. “Simply put, this bill is good for agriculture, good for Idaho, and good for our country, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to get it signed into law.”
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act offers undocumented workers a path to citizenship for themselves and family. Workers who have put in at least 180 days of agricultural employment over the last two years would be able to apply for either a five-year renewable visa, which is renewed by working at least 100 days in the industry every year, or Lawful Permanent Residency.
To apply for Lawful Permanent Residency, workers must pay a $1,000 fee and have either worked in U.S. agriculture for 10 years, plus an additional four years after enactment, or worked in U.S. agriculture for less than 10 years but an additional eight years after enactment.
“It provides earned legal status for workforce and deportation protection for workers if they are here without status,” Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, told the Idaho Press in November. “We have tried to advocate for immigration reform for families who have helped build the workforce.”
The Idaho Dairymen’s Association has been supportive of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.
Naerebout added that, although Idaho has not seen the high numbers of deportations that other dairy states have seen, there is still “the fear of deportation that creates apprehension and fear within our immigrant communities.”
“They are able to know that, through this legislation, they would be able to gain legal status and protect(ion) from deportation,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last year that undocumented workers make up nearly 50% of farmworkers nationwide.
The bill would also make changes to the H-2A visa program. It would streamline the application process and hiring for H-2A employers. It calls for wage reform that would eliminate the one wage determination for all workers and allow wages to fluctuate depending on the job. It would address the limited supply of farm workforce housing by increasing funding for loans and grants for building housing.
The bill also meets the Idaho Dairymen’s Association year-round labor needs. The bill would add an additional 40,000 green cards per year for agriculture workers. The visas can be used by employers to sponsor workers to fill permanent needs.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act’s main sponsor is Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, D-California. It has 48 Democrats as co-sponsors and 13 Republicans. The bill passed the House 247-174. It now heads to the Senate where it will be introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.