On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee passed the "Agricultural Guestworker Act" (Guestworker Bill - H.R. 4092) by a vote of 17-16 (two Republicans voted against the bill with no Democrats in support). This vote was preceded by a contentious two-day committee mark-up.
Changes to the bill were made prior to the mark-up, and subsequent amendments were agreed to that gathered the necessary committee votes. Several of those provisions have practical flaws that fall short of the overall goal to provide "a workable solution to agriculture's labor crisis."
Despite the bill's shortcomings, it is very positive that the Judiciary Committee could agree upon a bill and Chairman Goodlatte should be commended for his determination. The membership of the House Judiciary Committee makes it extremely difficult to secure a majority vote on anything related to immigration reform, so this is a major accomplishment.
Without the Committee's action on H.R. 4092, the agriculture industry could have been vulnerable to Mandatory E-Verify moving alone (The Mandatory E-Verify Bill - H.R. 3711 was also reported out of committee this week). In reporting the Guestworker Bill out of committee, future options to find a solution are preserved.
The following are some of the benefits and limitations of the current Guestworker Bill as written;
Guestworker Bill Benefits:
- Creates a new H-2C guestworker program to replace the current H-2A program. In so doing it moves most current H-2A functions at the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture.
- Sets minimum wages at 115% of either federal or state minimums, whichever is greater. This replaces the "Adverse Effect Wage Rate" that is set by DOL and changes each year.
- Eliminates various employer costs, including transportation and housing.
- Streamlines and modernizes the application process via attestations, electronic enhancements, etc.
Guestworker Bill Limitations:
- Requires the entire current improperly-documented workforce to leave the country and apply for readmission.
- Establishes an initial cap of 450,000 annual H-2C visas (410,000 initially for agriculture and 40,000 for processing). The current H-2A program is uncapped.
- Broadens the definition of agriculture to include forestry, aquaculture and meat/poultry processing. This expanded definition puts further stress on the cap.
Going forward, NPC is working with the Agriculture Workforce Coalition in meeting with House leadership and member offices on improving the bill should there be an opportunity for it to move to the House floor.
There is a possibility that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) solution may be included in a larger bill toward the end of the year. If that happens, we want to have a workable Guestworker Bill available for inclusion to protect ourselves against Mandatory E-Verify likewise being attached.