A bill to overhaul the federal agricultural guestworker program cleared its first hurdle Wednesday and is headed to the full U.S. House.
The Republican-majority House Judiciary Committee passed the bill 17-16 after two days of debate and over the objections of many Democrats. It’s likely to clear the House, though its future in the Senate is unclear.
U.S. agriculture producers rely on immigrant labor to pick fruits and vegetables and work at feedlots, dairies and meatpacking plants. But many producers say there aren’t enough people for the number of jobs available.
The legislation, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, would, among other things, increase the number of temporary farmworkers. The bill also would not mandate employers to provide housing and transportation for the immigrant workers.
Agriculture producers, lobbyist groups and even Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue back the bill.
Goodlatte says the current guestworker visa program is problematic because it requires growers to pay an “uncompetitive wage rate,” and notes his bill won’t provide a pathway to citizenship.
After the vote, Goodlatte issued a statement, saying the bill will “replace the broken H-2A program with a reliable, efficient, and fair program and provide American farmers access to a legal, stable supply of workers for seasonal as well as year-round work.”
But Democrats countered during the debate that the legislation would lower pay, displace workers who are American citizens and weaken protections for immigrant laborers.
“This is setting up a permanent second class of persons in the United States,” U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, says, adding later, “The whip of oppression is in the hand of the man. The man is not really the farmer, the man is the staffing agency that recruits the workers.”
The bill now goes to the U.S. House. Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley believes it’ll pass in that chamber. But after that, there’s work to be done, he says.
"Beyond that, it could be part of DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), but I don’t see it getting through the Senate unless it’s attached to some other immigration issue that’s got broad bipartisan support," Grassley says.
Harvest Public Media's Amy Mayer contributed to this report. Follow Erica on Twitter: @ehunzinger