Farmers and farm workers still waiting for farm labor reform after supply stalled

Congress failed to pass immigration reform in December that would give migrant farm workers a path to legal status and cap wages.

Experts say a new GOP-led House of Representatives is unlikely to be revised in the near future.

“For at least the next few years, there will be no chance that anything will happen legislatively,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute.

The proposed law, first proposed under the Farm Worker Modernization Act, has received support from some farm worker advocates, unions, employers, and industry coalitions. The bipartisan bill was first passed by the House of Representatives in 2019 and again in March last year, but failed to gain support in the Senate.

In his new role as Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy said in his opening address to the 118th Congress that he plans to pass bills aimed at “wide open southern borders.

What didn’t happen

Last year, more than 300,000 workers did farm work in the US on H-2A visas. A key function of the program is to allow temporary agricultural workers into the country to compensate for the ongoing shortage of domestic labor.

The proposal would introduce a number of significant changes to the H-2A visa program, including a multi-year path to legal status for some guest workers. It would also add several longer-term H-2A visas, establish a mandatory screening system for all farm workers, and improve housing access for farm workers.

Kayla Argeropoulos of the Capital Family Services Legal Aid Society said the legislative proposal would have taken years to develop.

“If a farm worker has worked in the US for 10 years or less, it will take them eight years to obtain or apply for permanent residence here in the US,” she said.

James O’Neill of the American Business Immigration Coalition said the path to legal status only applies to farm workers who are in the US and can prove they have worked in farming for a certain period of time.

“It wouldn’t be a magnet for newcomers to the United States because it wouldn’t apply to them,” he said. “This only applies to people who have worked in agriculture in the United States within the last two years.”

To qualify, workers had to be undocumented, have no criminal record, and pass a background check. O’Neill adds that the documentation meant that farm workers could leave the US to visit their families in their home countries and then return at will.

Pay rates

The proposal also called for a one-year wage freeze for agricultural workers and then a cap on possible wage increases. One studying found that wage changes for farm workers would save employers more than $2 billion in wages just two years after the bill was passed.

As the Senate failed to reach a consensus, O’Neill said consumers would be hurt.

“And because it didn’t become law, you know, we expect Americans to continue paying more, their grocery bills to continue to skyrocket,” he said.

But Costa of the Economic Policy Institute said the bill would effectively decouple the wages of agricultural workers from market forces, even though they are already among the lowest paid workers in the US.

“We rely on this underpaid and very vulnerable and exploited workforce,” he said.

This story was produced in collaboration with Harvest Public Media, an amalgamation of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

Copyright 2023 SDG 89.3. To learn more, visit KCUR 89.3.

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