Beatrix Sanders

Kern County’s agricultural industry is the largest employer where one in three jobs are directly linked to agriculture.

The agricultural industry — especially Kern County’s — has sought sensible farm and seasonal worker reforms on a bipartisan basis for many years. Now before Congress is House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s bill: Securing America’s Future Act, H.R. 4760, a bill to fund a border wall, address internal immigration enforcement and extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).

It also includes the committee-adopted version of the Agricultural Guestworker (AG) Act, which would create a new agricultural visa program, H-2C, and make E-verify mandatory. Even with recently introduced amendments, the AG Act would have negative consequences on the agricultural industry and the economics of Kern County.

Suggested revisions must be considered to the current language to hold off the negative consequences and prevent the economy of Kern County from plummetting into the negative.

H.R. 4760 currently caps seasonal workers VISA at 410,000 per year. Any cap is arbitrary and would be of no positive use in California, where two-thirds of the U.S. produce comes from. Placing a cap on any industry’s workforce leaves the industry with limited options and has negative consequences that only lead to capping the expansion ability or to send the industry off-shore, threatening U.S. jobs. If a cap is set, it should not also be accompanied by the burdensome and expensive process of a labor market test no matter how simplified. There is either control of supply or there is uncapped determination of need.

Additionally, the exemption for current workers is much less significant than it seems. The bill’s treatment of the current workforce related to the cap is not likely to encourage any coming forward. But under E-verify and increased I-9 compliance, the agricultural industry cannot continue to hire or rehire, so will turn to the H2C program.

Current employees and guest workers need to be treated separately when creating an ag guest worker program. Production ag needs a reasonable stabilization period during which employers can educate themselves on new rules and regulations associated with using the H2C program and workers are not faced with immediate departure threatening productivity. This can be accomplished by:

--allowing current experienced workers to be issued some form of a work permit that provides immediate legal earned status based on their commitment to the agriculture industry, and allowing those workers to adjust status in the country to the H-2C program any time before expiration of that permit;

--providing derivative status for immediate family members.

This legislation also would require petitions to be posted at the farm (place of employment) and specifically grants “the public” access to examine petitions at any time. This provision effectively nullifies the property rights of farmers and allows the general public unrestrained access to their property. Rather than protecting the employer, this legislation will not only exacerbate, but also facilitate increased targeting by anti-farming activists.

The “mandatory initial touch back” provision in the AG Act is a sensitive topic for both the ag employer and employees. To continue feeding the nation's population and beyond, skilled agricultural workers are a necessity. A mandatory touchback requirement leaves the agricultural industry with no certainty on how to fill the void that this process will establish because most skilled workers have been with their employers for years.

As for the employee, with the arbitrary caps set too low and a slow-moving agency, there is no certainty that they will be able to return. For these reasons, the “mandatory touch back” needs to be considered differently for those employees who have been here with their employers for years.

Most of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California’s Central Valley, which require manual labor to grow and harvest these nutritionally valuable crops year-round. We are proud to be the leaders of where we produce the safest food in the world. We urge Congress to consider how to move forward on the most pressing workforce, immigration and enforcement priorities for our industry.

Beatris Espericueta Sanders, executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, represents 1,200 members and 800,000 acres of irrigated farmland.