New bill would reform and expand visa program allowing employers to bring foreign workers to the U.S. to fill farm jobs

American farmers have faced multiple crises in 2019— including a devastating trade war and destructive floods—but there’s yet another issue imperiling the country’s agricultural prosperity: a growing farmworker shortage.

From Idaho to New York, American farmers are struggling to hire workers they need. The shortage of agricultural workers has hit California, the nation’s top agricultural state, especially hard. More than 40% of farmers in the past five years have been unable to obtain all the workers they needed for the production of their main crop, according to the California Farm Bureau Survey, released in May.

“Farmers and ranchers in every state tell me that the shortage of labor is the greatest limiting factor on their farms,” Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, wrote in July. “They try to hire American workers, but there are not many takers—and those who do take farm jobs often quit before the season is over.”

This shortage makes it more difficult for farmers to harvest their crops, which can have consequences for the nation’s agricultural economy as well as the cost and availability of food.

Armed with input from the agriculture industry and labor organizations, federal lawmakers are taking steps to address this farmworker shortage. 

The House Judiciary Committee passed legislation on Thursday that would allow farmers to hire employees they need while providing undocumented farm workers with protections and a path to earn legal status in the U.S.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would reform and expand the H-2A visa program, which allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs for which American workers are not available.

Among the lawmakers who backed the bill are Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-NY), who took to the House floor last week to speak about the importance of the bill for farms in his district, which has nearly 5,000 farms, 96% of which are family-run.

“Every time I’m home, I meet with farmers about the major challenges they face today. The need to modernize and make more effective our H-2A visa program is consistently flagged,” Delgado said. “In addition to ensuring critical protections for workers, the bill would finally allow dairy and other farm operations to access the H-2A farmworker program, a critical priority for farmers in NY-19.”

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would establish a program for undocumented agricultural workers in the United States, as well as their spouses and minor children, to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment and contribution to the U.S. agricultural economy. 

Under the bill, qualified applicants — those who have worked at least 180 days of agricultural employment in the past two years — are eligible for five-year renewable agriculture visas, and over time have the opportunity to apply for Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status. 

The legislation also ensures that wage requirements “better reflect the real-world wages paid to specific types of workers,” while protecting against abrupt wage increases that can make it harder for employers to run their businesses. The bill also aims to simultaneously increase the quality and quantity of farmworker housing, while also reducing employer costs related to such housing.

These measures are meant to resolve concerns raised by advocacy groups that have sounded the alarms over wage violations, unsanitary and unsafe housing, and poor working conditions for H2-A workers.

Workers at New York’s nearly 4,000 dairy farms and other dairy farms nationwide would particularly stand to benefit, as passage of the bill would make H2-A visas available to dairy workers for the first time, the Times Union reported.

In exchange for these reforms, employers and workers would have to comply with a mandatory, nationwide E-Verify system — a Republican priority — which would ensure a legal agricultural workforce. The implementation of E-Verify would be phased in and the legislation states that qualified workers who are incorrectly rejected by the system would be guaranteed due process.

The bill has more than 40 bipartisan co-sponsors and has the support of nearly 250 agriculture groups and labor organizations. 

In approving the bill on Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee recommended the legislation for a full vote before the House of Representatives.