Despite unsuccessful congressional efforts last year to secure passage of a revised guest-worker program known as H-2C, there may be an opportunity in newly introduced legislation that would provide “a path to legalization” for undocumented agricultural workers who already are in the U.S.
In comments to Michigan farmers attending the Michigan Farm Bureau’s (MFB) annual Washington Legislative Seminar, Paul Schlegel — managing director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation — said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., new chairwoman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, has made worker legalization a priority.
“Rep. Lofgren is from California — she knows the issue on agricultural labor because California is the largest employer of agricultural workers in the country,” Schlegel said. “Both she and her staff have told us point-blank they want to deal with it. They want to see if they can get something done.”
Schlegel said that Lofgren’s bill would create a path to legalization through a “Blue Card” for agricultural laborers currently working with falsified documentation. Even though AFBF has not taken a formal position on the legislation, Schlegel acknowledges it would address a major concern regarding a legal ag labor workforce.
The Blue Card legislation, while a step in the right direction, does not address improvements to H-2A or a new visa guest-worker program, Schlegel said. Considered an AFBF policy priority, revisions are needed to provide a future flow of legal agricultural workers for both seasonal and year-round positions.
“What we have not yet seen is a proposal that would give us a broad agricultural guest-worker program that covers all of agriculture, such as dairy and livestock, but there are discussions behind the scenes going on, so we're cautiously optimistic that we're seeing some movement,” Schlegel said.
Schlegel said there are preliminary discussions to attempt revisions through an appropriations bill to extend H-2A to nonseasonal jobs.
“We know that the Trump administration is working on a regulatory proposal on H-2A, and we expect that to come out in the near future,” Schlegel said. “But we also know (the Trump administration) cannot extend the program to year-round. They need a law by Congress to do that. That's why we have to press Congress to act.”
Adverse Effect Wage Rate is another potential chokepoint for agricultural guest workers, Schlegel said, noting that 47 out of 50 states have experienced an increase in the past 12 months — some with double-digit increases.
“It’s becoming very onerous for a number of farmers right now,” Schlegel said. “Some are saying that if it goes on like this much longer, they just simply can't stay in business. So, as we talk about these issues of a guest-worker program revision, the AEWR is a very important part of it.”
Even though the minimum wage will increase to $9.45 per hour in Michigan, the AEWR for Michigan farmers using H-2A in 2019 will pay a minimum of $13.54 per hour this year.
Schlegel encouraged members to enlist the support of Sen. Debbie Stabenow, saying she could play a vital role in immigration reform, which would have a direct effect on Michigan’s labor-dependent agriculture.
“If Sen. Stabenow is inclined, she is someone who could be very helpful,” Schlegel said, given her role on the U.S. Senate Ag Committee. “If we can get the senator engaged and supportive, that would be a big plus for agriculture.”