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House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers

 

The House on Wednesday passed a bill granting legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers.

The legislation to provide work permits for agricultural workers was approved on a bipartisan 260-165 vote.

After months of closed-door bipartisan negotiations, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act  was introduced in late October by Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.).

Under the proposal, the H-2A visa category for agricultural workers would be reformed to add flexibility for employers bringing in new foreign labor.

The bill would allow foreign workers who've worked in the U.S. agricultural sector for at least 180 days over the past two years to request five-year visas for themselves, their spouses and their minor children.

Those visas would be renewable for workers who prove they've worked in agriculture for more than 100 hours per year.

And some beneficiaries would be amenable to legal permanent residence, the prelude to citizenship, by paying a $1,000 fine.

Workers with more than 10 years of agricultural service at the time of enactment would need to work another four years in agriculture to obtain legal permanent status, and workers with less than 10 years experience would need to accumulate a further eight years to qualify.

The bill also provides limitations on access to social services for its beneficiaries, a cap on wage growth and universal implementation in participating sectors of the E-Verify program, a federal database designed to ensure workers applying for jobs are legally eligible for employment in the United States.

The bill's proponents hope the measure could ameliorate a labor shortage in U.S. agriculture, an issue that's been aggravated by a complicated visa process and and enhanced immigration enforcement.

"When you read the title, maybe folks may only think this is only an agricultural bill, but in reality this bill also helps deal with a vital national security issue -- a stable supply of agricultural goods produced here, in the United States of America," said Díaz-Balart, speaking on the House floor in favor of the bill.

Only three Democrats, Reps. Bobby Scott (Va.), Ben McAdams (Utah) and Jared Golden (Maine) voted against the bill, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) voted present.

The proposal also garnered the support of 34 Republicans, although proponents were hopeful up to 100 GOP lawmakers would vote for the bill.

The party's right flank dubbed the proposal an "amnesty bill" and lobbied against it ahead of the vote, likely reducing support from the GOP.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a longtime opponent of bills that include legalization for undocumented immigrants told The Hill the proposal is "amnesty. It's just that simple,"

"It's disappointing," said LaMalfa.

"The biggest trouble on our side is somebody says the "A" word and you run for the hills," he said.

"This is not amnesty," LaMalfa added.

LaMalfa said the bill would provide a way for foreign agricultural workers to come to the country with prior authorization, and allow for workers already in the country to regularize their status.

"Those that are here, you know, we all acknowledge that many are not here legally, but it moves them to legal status without giving away the farm. It doesn't hand out citizenship. It doesn't hand out federal benefits," he added.

But some Republicans' critiques were more nuanced.

Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the bill would benefit large dairies but would not have a meaningful impact on Georgia's agriculture.

"I'm not questioning the motives, I just don't think it was put together real well," said Collins.

Collins added he's hopeful to sit down with Lofgren and Senate leaders to work out a bill to improve on the existing proposal.

And Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee, complained that Republican amendments were left out in the bill's markup.

In committee, Lofgren alluded to the complicated balance of negotiations that led to the bill's final text in explaining her down vote on some amendments.

Still, the bill marks a rare show of bipartisanship on an issue that's plagued Congress for decades.

"We've tried to do this for decades. We tried as part of a whole bill, we tried as little bills. We never could get a majority vote to do anything until today," said Lofgren.

Newhouse lauded Lofgren from the House floor Wednesday for including Republicans in forming "a diverse group of members of Congress, agricultural stakeholders, farmers and producers, labor unions and farmworker organizations to write a piece of legislation that'll go a long way toward providing certainty for our ag industry."

And more than 350 agricultural groups joined in to support the bill, as well as major labor organizations like the United Farm Workers.

Lofgren and Newhouse both underscored the idea that the bill "is not perfect," but said it's a good compromise for all sides.

"You know why this is possible?" said Díaz-Balart at a press conference celebrating the bill's passage.

"Because of [Lofgren's] honorability, her credibility, and the fact that whether you agree with her or not, you can trust her," said Díaz-Balart, a veteran of several high-profile immigration negotiations over more than 15 years.

It's unclear when or if the Senate will take up the bill, although Senators on both sides of the aisle are expecting pressure from the agricultural industry and workers' groups to move it forward.

And the White House has remained quiet on the bill, although both Newhouse and LaMalfa have been in contact with administration officials.

"We've been working with the administration to make sure that we're at least getting close to something that they could support," said Newhouse.

"There's no position statement at all whatsoever, they're continuing to keep an open mind, that's great, we want to continue working with them," he added.

About 15 percent of workers in the industry are undocumented immigrants, according to a Pew Research Center study from last year.

President Trump's administration has intensified immigration enforcement in recent months, including an August raid of food processing facilities in Mississippi that detained almost 700 undocumented immigrants.

Justine Coleman contributed.

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