Today, the House Judiciary Committee began a mark-up of H.R. 4092 “The AG Act” (Rep. Bob Goodlatte). This is the first step in the legislative process as the House begins consideration of immigration legislation. The mark-up of the AG Act has recessed for today and will continue tomorrow with consideration of the Legal Workforce Act (Rep. Lamar Smith) to follow.
Today’s mark-up came three weeks after an earlier mark-up of the legislation had to be postponed because of opposition from all Democrat members of the committee, and several Republican members who were concerned that the legislation would be providing “amnesty” for current unauthorized farmworkers. There were also concerns that the visa cap was too high and could therefore result in displacement of American workers. The committee made several changes to the previous version of the bill in an attempt to garner the support of Republican members who opposed.
The AG Act contains several key components:
- Agency Administration: USDA enforces and administers H-2C and the program will begin six months after enactment. H-2A will sunset at that time.
- Housing: There is no requirement that employers provide housing or transportation.
- Visa Cap: There is an annual visa cap of 450,000 (with a sub cap of 40,000 within the processing sector). The cap does allow for increases (or reductions) if cap is (or is not) reached. Unauthorized ag workers at the time of introduction who become H-2C workers will not count against the cap.
- Type of Employment: H-2C is a contractual employment, however ‘at-will’ employment is available with a “Registered Agricultural Employer” only if they have completed their contractual employment and have eligible time remaining on their visa.
- Visa Term: If temporary or seasonal, an initial visa period up to 18 months of continuous stay. For non-temporary work, initial visa period up to 36 months continuous stay, subsequent visas are 18 months. H-2C workers must remain outside the U.S. for 1/12 of prior visa term or 45 days before renewing.
- Wages: State or local minimum wage or 15 percent (50 percent for processing workers) above Federal minimum wage, whichever is greater.
- Current Workforce: Must enter H-2C program, and within 6 months of being granted H-2C status, the worker must depart and remain outside of the U.S. for a yet to be defined period, and then make continued subsequent departures amounting to 1/12th of their visa term. Prior to H-2C becoming operational, an existing unauthorized worker would have no protected status. Additionally, family members of H-2C workers would receive no legal status.
- Mandatory E-Verify: For workers in agriculture, would go into effect 18 months after enactment.
While there are a handful of positive components in this legislation, we will continue to advocate that our current workforce needs to be allowed to remain working in agriculture without disruptive requirements that could force them out of the country. We also strongly oppose a visa cap for future workers. Such a policy only serves to limit the future economic growth potential of the agriculture sector.
It is important to note that the legislative process is rarely a straight line from introduction to a bill becoming law. There will be many challenges and opportunities during this process. We will need to continue to advocate that producer-friendly provisions are maintained, and we will need to work through the process to see remaining concerns about the current and future agricultural workforce addressed.
Additionally, we will need all coalition partners to be engaged at every step of the process, from completion of committee action, to the House floor, through Senate action and conference. We should not assume that provisions we need added or improved will be addressed by the Senate, so we need to concentrate on getting the best possible product out of the House. We look forward to continuing our work with Chairman Goodlatte, Leadership, every other member of the House, and then the Senate, to get the best possible legislative product.
For more information, please contact Ken Barbic at (202) 296-0191.