As all eyes are on the House impeachment inquiry, elsewhere an agricultural bill that could provide a path to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants is rumbling through the chamber — leading immigration hawks to accuse lawmakers of trying to sneak in an amnesty while the nation is distracted.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, passed in the House Judiciary Committee last month, is scheduled for a vote on the House floor Wednesday. The bill provides a process for undocumented farmworkers to seek a temporary five-and-a-half-year “Certified Agricultural Worker” status if they have worked for approximately six months in the industry in the last two years.
That status can either be renewed indefinitely, or workers (along with their spouses and children) can begin a path to permanent legal status in the form of a green card. That path, according to the legislation, includes background checks and $1,000 fine.
To secure the green card, those who have worked in agriculture for 10 years or more must work for four more years, while those who've spent less than a decade in the sector would have to work eight more years. Once workers receive a green card, they are then free to pursue work in fields outside of agriculture.
The bill also streamlines the H-2A agriculture visa program, cutting processing time and costs for visa petitions. And it calls for the Department of Homeland Security to set up a pilot program that would give H-2A workers the ability to change jobs within the sector if they find work within two months.
“The men and women who work America’s farms feed the nation. But, farmworkers across the country are living and working with uncertainty and fear, contributing to the destabilization of farms across the nation,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said in a statement. “Our bill offers stability for American farms by providing a path to legal status for farmworkers. In addition, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act addresses the nation’s future labor needs by modernizing an outdated system for temporary workers, while ensuring fair wages and workplace conditions.”
It’s also strongly backed by a number of farm groups. The United Fresh Produce Association said it brings “much-needed reforms to secure a stable and legal workforce in agriculture, allowing current farmworkers to attain legal status and reforming the H-2A guest worker program to ensure a future source of workers on American farms.”
The bill has the support of at least 23 Republicans, a number of whom are co-sponsoring the legislation -- likely assuring its passage in the House and raising the possibility that a form of such a bill could have a shot in the Republican-controlled Senate. Among the dozens of Democratic co-sponsors is House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who's also playing a lead role in the impeachment effort.
But immigration hawks have dismissed the claim that it is a modernization bill, instead calling it a thin cloak for yet another amnesty measure in the agricultural sector -- similar to one in the 1980s that saw more than 1 million workers seek protection from deportation, and one that was seen as rife with fraud.
“A true Farm Workforce Modernization Act would encourage mechanization and automation through subsidies, not amnesty illegal aliens and guarantee a steady flow of cheap foreign labor,” RJ Hauman, head of government relations at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), told Fox News.
Such groups say that automation, not amnesty, is what the agricultural sector needs.
“Cracking down on cheap foreign labor would save the federal government and states billions, help American Workers, and prevent future illegal immigration,” Hauman said. “Agricultural automation is the future of the industry – another amnesty and massive expansion of a guest worker program isn’t. When will lawmakers understand this?”
The Heritage Foundation, meanwhile, described the bill as a “clear cut example of amnesty,” warning that it "threatens the legal immigration system’s legitimacy and incentivizes aliens and farmers to ignore the legal immigration system in the future if it best serves their needs."
While the bill has bipartisan support, it has also faced criticism from other Republicans lawmakers. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., cited estimates from liberal groups that there are as many as 2.7 million farm workers in the country, with more than half estimated to be in the country illegally, meaning that more than a million and a half could get a pathway to legal status.
“While the 224 pages of H.R. 5038 make many more changes to the H-2A program — some good and some bad — one need look no further than the first few pages to figure out the real point of this bill: a path to citizenship for an unknown number of illegal immigrants who do some work in agriculture, along with their families,” he said at the Judiciary Committee markup last month.
He also said the bill’s document standards are low and could allow illegal immigrants with multiple DUI convictions and a history of Social Security fraud to get legal status.
As with most bills that include a path to legalization for those in the country illegally, there are some enforcement parts of the bill as well, but they come with major caveats.
While the bill would establish mandatory E-Verify (a DHS-run verification system for employers that has been seen as the holy grail for employment enforcement) for all agricultural employment, Lofgren’s office notes that that would be “phased in" and only "after all legalization and H-2A reforms have been implemented and included necessary due process protections for authorized workers who are incorrectly rejected by the system.”
This aspect is fueling concerns from immigration hawks that this bill goes the path of past “immigration reform” measures that pursue “amnesty first, enforcement later.”
Mark Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, argued in a recent op-ed that E-Verify would no longer be needed if the bill passes, “because with this kind of sweet deal, who’d bother to hire new illegals?”
Other conservatives warned that lawmakers were trying to push the bill through while attention was on impeachment. Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin accused lawmakers and groups in favor of open borders of “trying to ram this abomination through while [the] nation is distracted with bread and circuses.”
Should the bill pass and find support in the Senate, it is far from clear how President Trump would respond. He has pledged support for American farmers but has also promised to protect American workers from the flood of cheap labor from abroad.
If a version of the bill finds its way to the White House, that latter promise would face a high-profile test, possibly in an election year. So far the White House has not indicated whether or not it would veto the bill.