The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), on October 26 passed both the amended Agricultural Guestworker Act and the Legal Workforce Act.

The first bill, also known as the Ag Act, if enacted, would replace the Department of Labor’s H-2A guestworker program with a new guestworker program, called H-2C, overseen by the Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The Legal Workforce Act would require U.S. employees to check the eligibility of new hires with the E-Verify system.

When introduced, the agricultural community generally supported the guestworker bill; many have favored mandatory E-Verify, some have noted that it should be in place prior to the start of the H-2C guestworker program.

The Ag Act passed narrowly at 17-16, with two Republicans voting no with 14 Democrats. The E-Verify bill was approved on a straight party line vote of 20-10.

Agricultural Guestworker Act Provisions

According to Goodlatte, who introduced the bill, American farmers would have access to a legal, stable supply of workers to meet diverse agriculture industry needs. The Ag Act would support year-round as well as seasonal employers, such as dairies, aquaculture operations, raw food processors and forestry-related activities, when domestic labor cannot be found.

When the bill was introduced, the provisions included visas for experienced unauthorized agricultural workers to continue working in agriculture by joining the H-2C program. Employers must pay H-2C workers the higher of the state/local minimum wage or 115 percent of the federal minimum wage, but are not required to provide housing and transportation. Workers cannot bring spouses and minor children unless they are also guestworkers. Workers are not eligible for federal public benefits, such as the Affordable Health Care Act subsidies and the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. An initial stay of 36 months is allowed in order for worker training of hard to fill or specialized jobs. Subsequent visas and visas for other jobs will be provided for 18 months. A touchback provision that requires workers to return home periodically is also included.

In response to concerns raised by some Judiciary Committee members, prior to markup Goodlatte made revisions that included no green card set-asides for experienced agricultural workers; total cap reduction from 500,000 to 450,000, meat processing worker payment of 150 percent of the federal minimum wage or greater of state and local minimum or actual same-job workers wages; and requirement of employee health care.

At markup, several offered amendments passed. At this writing, the text of the bill had not been posted. H.R. 4092 as amended will be scheduled for a full House vote, and action can be followed at Congress.gov.

Industry Comments

Agricultural industry leaders were quick to both praise the Ag Act’s passage and eager to provide assistance.

Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy at the American Farm Bureau Foundation, said, “The House Judiciary Committee took an important step in seeking to remedy the chronic labor issues facing American agriculture, and we commend Chairman Goodlatte for his leadership in this effort and applaud his tireless efforts on behalf of workers and agricultural producers.

“The committee adopted amendments to the chairman’s bill that we are now evaluating for their potential impact. Agriculture desperately needs a guestworker program that is fair to both workers and agricultural producers, and we also need provisions that provide stability and security to our existing workforce. Those two elements are critical. As the process moves forward, we intend to work with members of Congress and the Congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle so that, at the end of the day, we have a strong program that will help to keep producers competitive and prevent production from leaving our country.”

Robert L. Guenther, senior vice president, public policy, provided United Fresh Produce Association’s statement that congratulated Chairman Bob Goodlatte on passage of the Ag Act out of the House Judiciary Committee. The statement adds, “However, several amendments to the bill that were passed pose significant impediments to securing an adequate guestworker program. As the bill moves forward, we are committed to seeking improvements in this legislation that will ensure a legal and viable workforce is available to the agricultural community. We intend to continue to work with Chairman Goodlatte, House members of both parties, and the Senate to address our concerns and improvements needed in a final bill. Agriculture must be assured that our current workforce has a path forward toward legal stability and security and we have a workable future agriculture guestworker program.”

House Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway (TX-11) remarked: “It’s time for an ag worker program that both respects our nation’s immigration laws and keeps American agriculture competitive. As a former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Mr. Goodlatte understands the challenges facing farmers and ranchers. His bill cuts red tape and institutes a flexible program that accounts for the different labor needs of various producers—be it the ongoing needs of a dairy operation or the seasonal needs of specialty crop farmers. I look forward to working with the ag community and Chairman Goodlatte to help shepherd this legislation through the House.”

Legal Workforce Act provisions

This bill, H.R. 3711, introduced by Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas),  Goodlatte, and Congressman Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), mandates the E-Verify system. Designed to preserve jobs for U.S. citizens and legal workers, the electronic system checks the social security numbers of newly hired employees against Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security records to determine worker eligibility.

The Act would repeal the I-9 System. It would be phased in for new hires in six-month increments, depending on the size of a business. It would preempt duplicative state laws that mandate E-Verify, but retains states’ ability to enforce the requirement.

It allows individuals to lock their SSN to guard against theft. Penalties are strengthened, and the bill requires DHS to conduct at least two pilot programs to help further prevent identity theft.

The full text of the bill, H.R. 3711, will be posted at Congress.gov.