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By Cristel Zoebisch with Ed Yowell

American agriculture has depended on the labor of immigrants since the 1940s. For decades, the U.S. Government has created, modified, and terminated various guest worker visa programs to help American farmers meet their labor needs, with the first being implemented in 1942. The current visa program, the H-2A, is the program farmers love to hate because, while supplying much-needed labor, it is bureaucratic, difficult to use, and does not meet farmer and rancher hired farmworker demand. Rep. Goodlatte (R- VA), Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has stated that “the H-2A program is widely known to be expensive, time-consuming, and flawed,” which leads to American farmers “[finding] themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace” due to the regulations they are forced to comply with. To address this, Rep. Goodlatte introduced the Agricultural Guestworker (AG) Act (H.R. 4092) last year. The bill would create a new guest worker visa program, the H-2C program, which would include:

  • Moving administration of the visa program from the Department of Labor (DOL) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  • Extending the guest farmworker visa duration from one to three years.
  • Allowing guest farmworkers to move freely through the farm labor marketplace, by enabling them to switch agricultural employers during their stay.
  • Expanding the availability of agricultural guest workers to non-seasonal agricultural employers, like dairies, poultry farms, and aquaculture operations, as well as food processors.
  • Establishing an initial cap of 450,000 visas per year and requiring “touchbacks” by guest workers to their countries of origin at the end of every work agreement (roughly every 12 to 36 months).

So, what's so bad about the AG Act?  

Notably, it does not grandfather-in undocumented farmworkers who have been working on farms for many years, nor does it provide a path to citizenship for them and their families. However, there is another option. Unlike the Goodlatte AG Act, the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2017 (S. 1034), sponsored by Senator Feinstein (D-CA), would “give undocumented farmworkers a ‘blue’ card after they prove they have worked 100 days over the past two years in agriculture, shielding them from deportation,” as reported by the Desert Sun.  Blue card holders would be eligible to apply for permanent residency after three years of having legal work status, and would eventually be able to apply for citizenship. 
However, with the current administration's efforts to advance various anti-immigration measures, the Goodlatte bill goes well beyond addressing farmers' and ranchers' needs for labor. This includes:

  • Authorizing $30 billion to build a border wall along our border with Mexico.
  • Ending family-based migration and the diversity visa lottery program.
  • Allowing the Justice Department to withhold grants from sanctuary cities.
  • Requiring employers to transfer 10% of guest workers’ gross wages to a trust fund to provide a monetary incentive for them to return home when their visas expire.
  • Scrapping existing requirements that employers provide guest workers with housing and transportation.
  • Reducing hourly farmworker wages in more than half of our states (those with hourly minimum wage rates higher than the federal rate) by eliminating the USDA’s Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) and replacing it with a rate equal to the state’s minimum wage.
    • In New York, for example, per hour wages would be reduced by $2.43 to $10.40 per hour. In California, per hour wages would be reduced by $2.68 to $10.50 per hour.

According to Farmworker Justice contributing writer Jessica Felix-Romero, the AG Act would “transform the farm labor force into a system of non-immigrant guest workers who would hold temporary work permits and are subjected to low wages and poor working conditions, with inadequate recourse for the abuses that will inevitably result from the program’s inherently flawed structure.” The bill sends a clear message: we will take your labor, but we will not accept you as a human being. Slow Food wholeheartedly opposes the AG Act.

The AG Act is not only humiliating to and exploitative of immigrant farmworkers, but it also fails to effectively help American family farmers meet their labor needs. This Bloomberg article warns that American growers will be tempted to move their farming operations south of the border if they continue to struggle with labor shortages and uncertainty. As Bloomberg Editors contend, “the U.S. can import food or it can import the workers who pick it,” and the country certainly will not be able to “import” farmworkers with the H-2C visa program to meet current labor needs. Farmworker Justice estimates that 2.5 million seasonal workers labor on U.S. farms and ranches, and over 50% of them lack authorized immigration status. The AG Act’s current cap of 450,000 workers clearly does not meet the demand for agricultural labor. In the long-term, labor shortages translate into lost harvests and lost farm income which could lead to higher food prices and an increase in imported foods. This bill is not good for farmers, immigrant farmworkers, or eaters.
TAKE ACTION by letting your Representative know that, as a constituent and a supporter of Slow Food, you strongly oppose the AG Act (H.R. 4092) and urge her or him to vote NO on H.R. 4092. Below is a sample message for you to use. You can find your Representative here. Just click on your Representative's contact page, then cut, paste, and customize the message below, and send! 

Dear Representative ,
I am a constituent and a supporter of Slow Food USA, the organization dedicated to a food chain that is Good, Clean, and Fair for All, including the farmworkers who labor to put food on our tables.
I oppose H.R. 4092. The bill is bad for farmers, because it will not provide enough farmworkers to meet their labor needs, and it is bad for farmworkers, because it reduces benefits and, for many, wages. This bill tells immigrant farmworkers, we accept your labor (for low pay under strenuous working conditions), but we do not accept you as a human being who has contributed to our food security.
I urge you to vote NO on H.R. 4092. We can do better.
Thank you for your attention.

You can learn more about Slow Food’s 2018 Farm Bill policy priorities here and stay tuned for more policy updates in our blog as the Farm Bill discussion heats up in the Senate in upcoming weeks.