In early December the House of Representatives 34 Republicans joined 226 Democrats and passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 5038). The bill, the first House-passed agricultural labor reform since a comprehensive immigration plan in 1986, includes critical provisions to address dairy’s unique workforce needs. At the time, the American Farm Bureau Federation said they couldn’t support the bill. Recently, Dale Moore, executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, joined John Herath and Jim Wiesemeyer on a special edition of the DC Signal To Noise Podcast to explain why.
“We've got a bill that came out of the House, that as it stands is not going to go anywhere in the Senate, at least in its current form,” he explained. “But we also know we've been reaching out to senators, both sides of the aisle, saying ‘Look, here is an opportunity to make some progress.’”
While the pathway to legal status for the current workforce and the year-round H2A change are critical, the organization and its members have some concerns.
1. The caps on visas. “The caps that were put on it are way too low,” Moore explained. “So that's one area where we'd like to address things.”
2. The wage rate and affordability of hiring employees through the revised H2A program outlined in the bill. “We are concerned about the wage and the adverse effect wage rate has different impacts in different states,” he said. “It's one thing if we have a great program, or even a good program that helps us get legal workers when we need them and streamlines the process, but if I as a farmer can't afford those workers because of the adverse effect wage rate, and the limitations that's put on that, then we've got another problem because, good program or not, it's got to be affordable.”
3. E-Very. The bill requires all agriculture employers to use e-verify. “Our grassroots has spoken loud and clear to us over the last several years that until and unless we have a program in place that gives me access to a steady, readily available, affordable supply of workers, we’re not going to be supportive of any kind of e-verify,” Moore added.
Fortunately, Moore thinks the bill can either be fixed in the Senate or can be modified in a conference.
“We're confident that we've got as good a shot as we've had going into 2020 to take that issue and hopefully see some action in the Senate,” he said. “If we get into a House/Senate conference, that would be great if we come up with a bounce type process that the House and Senate are working on. Our hope is we get a workable package that that recognizes what farmers and ranchers need, particularly in rules that are easy to follow that are transparent, and also realistic for what the labor needs are all across this country.”
Moore does not believe the pathway to citizenship that some have referred to as amnesty will be a snag in coming to an agreement. In fact, he says it’s a critical element for more industries than agriculture alone.
“We understand that there are a number of folks who have been in the United States for years. Their families have grown up here, they've grown up here, sometimes multiple generations. They may not be here legally,” he said. “So there needs to be a process that allows them to get to legal status. Whatever those steps are.”
Moore reflected on the work his organization did with Bob Goodlatte, Chairman of the House Judiciary committee in the last congress and to put that pathway together.
“We're confident that we can come up with something that will pass muster,” Moore said. “It's not amnesty. It has got to be a process, though, that recognizes that there are a lot of folks in this country who have been significant contributors to helping farmers and ranchers get their work done and we've got to protect that process.”