WASHINGTON DC — When I talk to farmers in Central Washington and across the country, having access to a stable and legal workforce is often their number one concern. Each year, it becomes harder to hire domestic workers, and farm owners have become increasingly dependent on the H-2A agricultural guest worker program to grow and harvest their goods for market. This has amounted to a critical labor shortage for our agriculture industry – one of the most important sectors of our nation’s economy.
Since I was elected to Congress, making reforms to our nation’s agricultural labor programs has been one of my highest priorities. As a farmer, I understand how our outdated H-2A program is simply not working for farmers or farmworkers in the 21st Century. I also understand the invaluable contributions these farmworkers make to our country’s agricultural industry.
Last year, I worked with then-Chairman Goodlatte of the House Judiciary Committee to introduce legislation to address agriculture’s labor crisis, reform our guest worker program, and provide access to a legal workforce. That bill was not perfect, but it made important strides to address the challenges facing farmers in the United States. Unfortunately, the legislation did not move forward, prolonging this crisis for yet another year.
I did not give up. I was heartened with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), now the Chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, approached me to join her and work together – with the people of Central Washington in my heart and mind – to come up with a compromise bill which would provide a real, meaningful solution for America’s farms.
It has truly been a bipartisan effort. After months of negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, agricultural stakeholders, and labor unions and organizations, we introduced H.R. 4916, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.
This bill will improve and modernize the H-2A program, ridding employers of outdated regulations and expanding access to the program for industries with year-round labor needs like dairy. It provides predictability for farmers by preventing mid-season wage increases and limiting wage growth to 3.25 percent. Without this provision, employers across the country are expected to face a wage increase of at least seven percent in 2020.
The legislation also takes steps to recognize the contributions of our farm workforce by ensuring wages are commensurate with position and experience, and it creates a first-of-its-kind, employment-based immigration program to provide legal status to current agricultural workers who have a history of working in agriculture. In addition to maintaining a clean criminal record and paying fines, this program requires these workers to continue working in agriculture in order to earn legal status, ensuring their continued investment in the U.S. economy.
This is a compromise measure, plain and simple. It may not be the bill Rep. Lofgren or I would have written separately on our own, but it is a bill that we wrote collaboratively, with an absolute goal of solving one of the longest-running problems our rural communities have faced. Working together toward one, bipartisan goal is not something we see too often in our nation’s capital, and I am proud to have helped spearhead this landmark legislation.
With the support of nearly 250 agriculture organizations, labor groups, business associations, and over 40 bipartisan Members of Congress, I am hopeful we can continue to work together to get this bill passed and on to the President’s desk. Our farmers and ranchers, our farmworkers, and our rural communities deserve a level-headed, employment-based solution, and that is what the Farm Workforce Modernization Act provides.
Congressman Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside serves the 4th Congressional District in Washington, D.C.