A farmworker bill moving through the U.S. House of Representatives has won rare bipartisan support with a compromise attempt at balancing legitimacy for immigrant ag labor with new certainty for industry employers.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would allow farmworkers already working in the country to earn legal residency. Employers would benefit from wage-stabilization measures, lower housing costs and streamlined guest-worker applications — but they would also have to submit to a computerized system for verifying employees' legal status.
To succeed, especially in an election year, the bill will have to bridge one of the nation's widest political divides. It attempts to do this by stringing together concessions from both sides of the aisle.
More than 300 industry groups have backed the measure, as has their traditional bargaining adversary, the United Farm Workers of America union. When it was introduced this year after eight months of negotiations, 26 House Democrats and 23 Republicans lined up to support it.
The bill, HR 5038, passed the House Judiciary Committee Nov. 21 with a vote of 18-12 and could go before the full House soon. Observers say if it passes, a second, more delicate round of negotiations will await in the U.S. Senate.
Rep. T.J. Cox, one Kern's two congressional delegates, has expressed strong support for the bill. The other, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, has not made clear where he stands on the legislation.
Cox, D-Fresno, said in an emailed statement he made sure to be part of the bipartisan creation of the bill because people in his district may go the rest of their lives without being able to see loved ones outside the United States for fear of being unable to reenter the country.
At the same time, he said local dairies are suffering because they lack a dependable source of skilled farmworkers.
"We shouldn't accept this policy failure by our government as the status quo," he wrote.
McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, has for years faced pressure among California farmworker-rights groups to support immigration reform. He issued a statement saying the ag industry needs a vibrant workforce and that Congress needs to address the matter.
But rather than state his position on the bill, he pledged to work toward “commonsense solutions that uphold the rule of law, that farmers can support and can be signed into law."
The Kern County Farm Bureau has declined to take a position on the bill, even as other Central Valley farm bureaus — and the California Farm Bureau Federation — have publicly backed the legislation.
KCFB President John C. Moore III said by email the bureau stands ready to work on potential amendments as necessary "to meet the needs of our local employers and their employees."
He called the legislation an important "stepping stone" to solving larger problems facing the industry and its workforce. But he voiced concerns with the bill's plan to phase in electronic verification of farmers' workers over three years, as well as its proposed caps on year-round visas for foreign guest workers.
"Immigration reform is a need for farmers in California," he wrote. "We have an aging workforce and a current workforce who needs addressing. Allowing the next generation to work through this industry is paramount to Kern County ag, and will allow the next generation an opportunity to better themselves from the ground up."
"As the industry sees regulatory-caused increases in cost," he continued, "the last thing needed is another variable due to lack of a workforce."
AN IMPERFECT BILL
The state farm bureau federation's associate director for federal policy, Sara Neagu-Reed, praised the broad bipartisan effort that has gone into forging the compromises at the heart of the legislation. But she said there may still be work to do.
For instance, the industry chafes at any caps on guest workers. Neagu-Reed said it's unfortunate both political parties insist on such limits, Republicans for the reason that caps put a ceiling on legal immigration and Democrats because newcomers compete with existing workers.
One win for California, she said, is a provision in the bill that allows guest workers "portability," meaning they would be able to work for one employer for a few weeks then, on the same limited-time visa, go immediately to work for another farmer.
"It may not be perfect from our perspective," she said, "but it's better than (the) status quo."
Cox's office, noting that the bill faces substantial uncertainty in the Senate, said adjustments may well lie ahead.
As it stands, the office said, the bill is an important example of Democrats and Republicans coming together to negotiate a potential solution to what has been a divisive topic.
Cox's office also said it shows Democrats are not focused solely on trying to impeach President Donald Trump.