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Ag Worker Overhaul Doubtful   06/20 17:19

   Immigration Bill in House Changes Ag Guest-Worker Program, But Passage 

   An overhaul of the agricultural guest-worker program will be part of the 
immigration packages that the U.S. House of Representatives will likely debate 
on Thursday.

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

   OMAHA (DTN) -- An overhaul of the agricultural guest-worker program will be 
part of the immigration packages that the U.S. House of Representatives will 
likely debate on Thursday, but basically has little chance of passing.

   The House will vote on a pair of immigration bills, but lawmakers and 
observers expect both bills will go down in defeat.

   One of the bills, the so-called "compromise bill," HR 6136, focuses on 
spending $25 billion for a wall along the southern border and making it harder 
to immigrate to the U.S. by ending the visa lottery program. The bill also 
would legalize those young people known as "Dreamers" under the Deferred Action 
for Childhood Arrivals program and would spell out a law to keep families 
together when parents and children are apprehended at the border.

   "As I said last week, we do not want children taken away from their 
parents," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Wednesday. "We can enforce our 
immigration laws without breaking families apart."

   Ryan's comments came before an announcement by President Donald Trump on 
Wednesday that he would sign an executive order to end the family separations. 
Trump signed the order after the national backlash over separating children and 
their parents and recognizing Congress is not going to quickly pass a bill to 
solve the family separation problem.

   The agricultural guest-worker overhaul is part of the bill "Securing 
America's Future Act," or HR 4760, by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob 
Goodlatte, R-Va. The bill would scrap the current H-2A temporary ag worker 
program and replace it with a new program, dubbed H-2C, that would allow 
farmers and other employers to bring in 410,000 foreign workers for farm jobs 
as well as 40,000 foreign workers for meatpacking plants. The provisions also 
shift oversight of the agricultural guest-worker program from the Department of 
Labor to USDA.

   Undocumented farmworkers already in the United States also could have gained 
legal status by enrolling in the H-2C program, although they would have had to 
leave the United States and apply for re-entry. Although the exact number of 
undocumented workers in agriculture is not known, it has been estimated by the 
Pew Research Center that at least 30% of the farm labor force is undocumented.

   Yet, despite the demands for legal agricultural labor around the country, 
farm groups have not embraced the bill. For instance, the American Farm Bureau 
Federation, which seeks to reform agricultural labor laws, has not taken a 
position on either of the immigration bills before the House. Staff from other 
agricultural groups told DTN the bill doesn't do enough to help existing farm 

   As Politico reported Wednesday, Republican leadership in the House has been 
unable to generate enough support to pass either immigration bill. President 
Trump's talk with House Republicans on Tuesday was not able to convince GOP 
lawmakers to back either bill.

   And yet, in the way Congress works, Goodlatte's bill is being brought to a 
floor vote largely as a way to defeat a moderate petition supported by nearly 
every Democrat and 23 moderate Republicans to protect the DACA recipients from 
potential deportation. By bringing up Goodlatte's bill, the petition is 
scrapped and has to start over.

   The conservative group Heritage Action for America dubbed the compromise 
bill as an "amnesty" bill because the language on the DACA youth provides a 
possible pathway to citizenship. Heritage also maintains the bill would not end 
"chain migration" -- the practice of people who are immigrants bringing further 
family into the country legally.

   As Politico noted, conservatives largely remain opposed to the DACA 
provisions. "They're still wary of voting for a bill they fear will be viewed 
as 'amnesty,' leaving GOP leaders with far fewer than the 218 votes needed to 
pass the plan."

   The failure of HR 4760 would leave farmers and agriculture nationally in the 
situation of a tight labor market with Immigration and Customs Enforcement 
(ICE) increasingly cracking down on illegal labor. Just Tuesday, ICE arrested 
146 people working at a pork processing plant in Canton, Ohio, following an 
immigration raid.

   The National Pork Producers Council is one of the agricultural groups that 
has thrown its support behind Goodlatte's H-2C overhaul. NPPC has said over the 
past year that finding legal labor for farms has become a top priority for its 

   "Our challenges with ag labor certainly hasn't changed when we talk about 
the pork industry and what's happening in rural America," said Jen Sorenson, 
chairwoman of NPPC's ag labor task force. "It continues to be one of our 
highest priorities."

   Sorenson, who works for Iowa Select Farms, said more pork producers are 
facing the challenge of what it takes to get a quality workforce to deal with 
the daily needs of animal care, "Producers have a really high standard when it 
comes to animal care, and it's not something that can be mechanized."

   The current agricultural guest-worker program, H-2A, has a seasonality 
clause restricting a visa to nine months of the year. That does not help pork 
producers, dairy farmers or other livestock operations that demand labor 365 
days a year.

   "Someone has got to show up to the barns every day, and that gets 
difficult," Sorenson said.

   DTN Livestock Analyst John Harrington cited a "chronic labor shortage" this 
week as the reason a new Sioux City, Iowa, pork plant will not be launching a 
second shift this summer as planned. For more on the packer labor shortage, see

   Then there is the introduction of more packing capacity in places such as 
Iowa. Sorenson pointed to the construction of a new pork plant in Eagle Grove, 
Iowa, a rural area of north-central Iowa that will demand more labor there.

   Some agricultural employers have relied heavily on the nonimmigrant North 
American Free Trade Agreement Professional (TN) visa to fill positions. Several 
agricultural jobs are allowed for that three-year visa program, but applicants 
under that visa are also generally required to have a college degree or 
equivalent to qualify.

   Sorenson said NPPC and other agricultural groups are watching to ensure that 
visa program remains included in the NAFTA renegotiation talks.

   Chris Clayton can be reached at 

   Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN 


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