Will House Jidiciary Take Up An Ag Labor Bill?

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For months, House Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has hinted at moving an agricultural labor reform bill through his committee. The most recent rumor hinted at a bill being introduced and possibly even considered this week (September 25), but committee staff have suggested further delay. When it is introduced, we expect it will be “marked up” (the committee process of considering and amending legislation) shortly thereafter, sequentially after the Legal Workforce Act, which would mandate that all employers use the federal E-Verify electronic employment eligibility verification system.

It would be a mistake to comment in too much detail on the Goodlatte Bill until a final draft is released. At a high level, the bill would replace the existing H-2A program with a new program called H-2C. Much of the basic structure of H-2A would be retained; however, the program would be transferred from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture. Several economic and procedural burdens associated with H-2A would be reduced or eliminated, such as the requirement to provide or reimburse housing and transportation. Access to visas under the proposed program would be expanded to several other sectors, including meat, poultry, seafood, and other food processors.

The bill’s primary option for current experienced but unauthorized workers would be to come forward, register, apply for H-2C visa status, then leave the country for an unspecified period of time. H-2C is “non-immigrant” status, which could pose real and practical challenges for experienced ag and hort workers and their employers. It would also impose a cap on the number of visas, a point of potentially significant concern. The current H-2A program is uncapped.

Is there a path forward for an ag labor reform bill right now? Hard to say. On one hand, the goal of solving the ag labor situation has always had good bipartisan support. On the other, President Trump’s decision to “unwind” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program adds an urgent complication for the Congressional immigration debate. Some favor dealing with “DACA” swiftly and cleanly, pairing a fix only with border security enhancements. Others would like to do more.

We’ll unpack the expected Goodlatte bill more when we see final language. Until then, while not endorsing specific legislation, our stance is to support the Chairman in moving a bill through the rather polarized Judiciary Committee and work to improve areas of most concern as the process moves forward in the House and eventually the Senate. Stay tuned.

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