On Dec. 11, U.S. congressional representatives approved the Farm Workforce Modernization Act with a vote of 260-165. Congressman Jimmy Panetta led the effort in crafting the bill alongside several other representatives, including Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), Mike Simpson (R-ID), Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL).
The bill, touted as a benefit for the country’s agriculture industry and farmworkers, now awaits consideration in the Senate.
Panetta answered some questions about the bill, including the significance of it being a bipartisan effort, what the act would accomplish if made into law, and how it would impact San Benito County.
BENITOLINK: The Farm Workforce Modernization Act had several co-authors alongside yourself. Please explain a bit about your role in the act, and how you worked with the other legislators?
PANETTA: As the representative of San Benito County and the Central Coast in Congress, I understand the needs of our local farmers and farmworkers who make agriculture our no. 1 industry. Unfortunately, our current immigration system does not recognize the vital contributions of farmworkers to our economy and communities and has left many agriculture workers unprotected and unable to fully integrate into our society.
I helped to craft the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in partnership with Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California and Congressman Dan Newhouse of Washington to provide a clear path to legal status for our domestic farm laborers, and ensure a stable workforce for the future of agriculture.
Since our area employs some of the highest numbers of farmworkers in the country, and grows some of the most high-value crops in the United States, I was uniquely positioned to ensure that this legislation provided investments for housing stock for farmworkers.
The act is touted as a bipartisan piece of legislation. What is the significance of that in relation to agriculture?
Agriculture policy has historically been an area of great bipartisan compromise. As we’ve seen, though, immigration has become a highly partisan issue. However, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act provided an opportunity for both sides of the aisle to come together and work on a bipartisan bill that helps our communities and country. I believe that the way that we crafted it, and the input from both Republicans and Democrats, gives us a higher chance for the Senate to act on it and provide the much-needed relief to our agricultural communities.
What will the bill, if passed, accomplish? How would it impact farms and farmworkers?
The legislation protects our existing farmworkers and promotes an enduring agricultural workforce.
The bill will establish a program for agricultural workers in the United States to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment and contribution to the U.S. agricultural economy.
It will also reform the H-2A program to provide more flexibility for employers, while ensuring critical protections for workers. The bill focuses on modifications to make the program more responsive and user-friendly for employers and provides access to the program for industries like dairy and ranching with year-round labor needs.
Finally, it will establish a nationwide employment eligibility verification system for all agricultural employment. By adapting our immigration system to meet the needs of the agricultural sector, we can ensure access to a safe and legal workforce, encouraging farmworkers to come out of the shadows and continue contributing to our society, legally and without fear.
Which labor organizations and stakeholders provided input on the bill? What did their involvement bring to the table?
This bill was crafted through a collaborative negotiation process between the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, including Western Growers and the United Farm Workers. They provided the necessary perspectives from industry and labor, and through that process we were able to reach compromises on controversial issues such as a path to legal status, wages, and year-round visa availability.
If passed, how would the bill impact San Benito County? How would it impact California agriculture in general?
This bill would provide a legal status to the current undocumented farm workforce in San Benito and their immediate family members.
It would also ensure a legal workforce to the producers with a higher degree of certainty than the current H-2A visa program offers. These critical reforms will help California agriculture compete in an increasingly competitive international market, and keep our local agricultural economy strong.
The top 10 agriculture products from San Benito for the year 2017, of which the gross value of production was over $351 million, are delicate specialty crops like spinach, broccoli, peppers, and fruits. These crops require human sight, sense, and touch in order to determine what’s aesthetically pleasing to the consumer. Our farmworkers provide that skilled labor.
How would the bill change the current process for agricultural workers to gain legal status? What issues do agricultural workers face gaining legal status as the law stands now?
Most farmworkers don’t have a clear process to gain legal status. They live and work on the Central Coast but due to their immigration status, they spend their entire lives in the shadows. Though they contribute to our economy and to our culture, our current immigration system prevents these people from adjusting their status. This bill would end this system and allow America’s domestic undocumented farm workforce to earn their legal status by continuing to work in agriculture.
With a modernized, employment-based immigration system, farmworkers who have become experts in our fields—thanks to decades of service to America’s farms—will have the option to earn legal status and permanent residence in the United States to ensure the stability of our agriculture.
Farmworkers will have improved wages and working conditions, resulting in a more stable farm labor force, greater food safety, and provide them an opportunity to earn legal immigration status.
Title II in the bill deals with the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. What are the current issues and challenges with H-2A as it exists now, and what would change if the bill is adopted?
The current H-2A program is too expensive and too complicated to meet the needs of a fast-paced industry like modern agriculture. Oftentimes, farmers cannot get workers they need, and crops are left in the field to rot.
The bill would minimize the need for use of the H-2A program by providing a meaningful, long-term solution for agricultural employers. Recent H-2A guestworkers meeting eligibility requirements would be able to apply for blue cards.
This bill creates year-round access to the H-2A program for dairy and other agricultural sectors that desperately need workers but have previously been unable to utilize the program. Without this bill, year-round agriculture has no access to a legal immigrant workforce.
What role does the Title III electronic verification play in the bill, and why is this included in the legislation? Why is electronic verification of the workforce required?
This title would establish a mandatory, nationwide E-Verify system for all agricultural employment, phased in after all legalization and H-2A reforms have been implemented, and include necessary due process protections for authorized workers who are incorrectly rejected by the system.
This was put in place to limit the attractiveness of illegal entry to the United States.
Anything else you’d like to add?
By protecting our existing farmworkers and promoting an enduring agricultural workforce, this bipartisan legislation will have a very positive impact on our communities in San Benito County and across the Central Coast.
I am very proud of this bill, and the bipartisan work to provide our farmers with needed stability and certainty for success, and to provide our farmworkers and their families with deserved dignity and legality.