Farmworker Justice Immigration Update: 07/14/17

New Agricultural Guestworker Proposals Being Developed by Trump Administration

As previously noted, the Trump Administration is reportedly developing proposals to change or replace the H-2A agricultural guestworker program. More recently, at a meeting during the G20 summit, President Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña-Nieto agreed to a bilateral discussion on temporary work programs for Mexican migrants in the agriculture sector. The U.S., Canada and Mexico are also renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which may also be an arena in which agricultural work visas are discussed.  Farmworker JusticeJ believes that the concerns of workers regarding guestworker programs would not be adequately addressed during trade negotiations.  In addition, the history and legacy of the abuses under the Bracero Program (1942-1964), which was the product of a U.S.-Mexico agreement, should cause great concern about potential bilateral discussions on an agricultural guestworker program.     

New Agricultural Guestworker Proposals Likely in Congress

House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) is reportedly drafting a new immigration bill addressing agricultural workers.  Although the language of the bill is not yet public, agribusiness media has reported that it will be “less cumbersome” than the H-2A program and will also include the dairy industry.  During a recent House Committee on Agriculture hearing titled “The Next Farm Bill: Technology & Innovation in Specialty Crops,” agribusiness representatives expressed concerns about an agricultural labor shortage amid increased immigration enforcement, critiqued the current H-2A program, and called for reforms to ensure a “workable” guestworker program. In response to these concerns, some Agriculture Committee members referenced the forthcoming Goodlatte bill as a possible solution.

The House Judiciary Committee has also scheduled a hearing next week, specifically on the topic of agricultural guestworkers. However, the exact timing for the introduction of any proposed legislation remains uncertain. While farmworker advocates are unlikely to support a bill introduced by Rep. Goodlatte, who has a long and harmful history on these issues, it is unclear how well-received it would be by agricultural interests, fellow Republicans in Congress and the Trump Administration.  Increasing employers’ access to foreign workers could conflict with potential plans by the Trump Administration to reduce legal immigration and exacerbate tensions between pro-business and anti-immigrant factions within the Administration and Congress.

Fortunately, there is a positive and workable solution in Congress that will meet the needs of workers, agricultural employers, and our food system. As we have shared in the past, the Agricultural Worker Program Act which was introduced in Congress recently, would provide a path to lawful permanent residency for agricultural workers. The list of bill cosponsors in the House and Senate continues to grow.  We appreciate your advocacy efforts in support of this important bill.

Increased Use of H-2A Guestworker Visas and Labor Contractors Continues, Heightening Possibility of Even More Labor Abuses  

In the meantime, the H-2A program is proving to be very workable for employers, with growth of the program almost tripling in size during the last decade: from about 60,000 worker positions certified in FY 2006 to about 165,000 worker positions certified in FY 2016. FY 2017 Department of Labor statistics for the H-2A program show that approximately 97,000 positions have been certified so far this year, an increase of approximately 30% over the same period last year, with a timely approval rate of around 98%.  The H-2A program does not have a cap, which allows for an unlimited supply of foreign workers. FJ continues to be concerned about treatment of both US and domestic workers under the H-2A program.

As stated by Farmworker Justice President Bruce Goldstein in an article regarding H-2A workers in the California wine industry, “the history of the program shows these guest workers are very vulnerable to abuse and many employers take advantage of those vulnerabilities.”  This worker vulnerability is often worsened by the use of labor contractors. As highlighted in another recent article, some employers, including agribusiness giant Monsanto, continue to use labor contractors even after allegations of labor abuse. This is especially concerning in light of the fact that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2001 to 2015, the number of farm labor contractors and crew leaders nationwide increased by nearly 20%. As pointed out by FJ President Bruce Goldstein in the article, labor contracting situations can lead to rampant violations of farmworkers’ labor rights.

FY 2018 House Appropriations Bills

This week, various House Appropriations Subcommittees published their proposed FY 2018 funding bills. (There are 12 Appropriations Subcommittees and each one submits a funding bill for their area of focus.) It is important to note that the appropriations process is just beginning, and the bills must be reviewed by the Senate and approved by both chambers of Congress. Still, the House Subcommittee proposals will frame the debate going forward, so we will continue to monitor their possible impact on immigrants and farmworkers.

Farmworker Housing – During the mark-up of the Agriculture Appropriations Bill, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) introduced an amendment that would allow Section 514 housing to be used to house H-2A workers, as a way of addressing the increased need for worker housing resulting from the H-2A program’s continued growth. Section 514 loans are provided to build or improve housing for farm laborers, and H-2A workers are currently not eligible for this type of housing.   Farmworker Justice has opposed using these subsidies for the benefit of H-2A employers because there is a severe shortage of housing for farmworkers in the U.S. and inadequate housing programs for farmworkers.

Immigration Enforcement - The House Appropriations Subcommittee for Homeland Security (DHS) recently presented its proposed FY 2018 appropriations bill, which immigration advocates have described as a “rubber stamp” and “blank check” for President Trump’s deportation policies. Among other provisions, the bill includes $4.4 billion in funding for detention and removal programs and hundreds of millions of dollars to hire 1,000 additional ICE officers and 500 additional CBP officers. The bill also includes $1.6 billion for the construction of a “physical barrier” on the U.S.-Mexico border. The issue of immigration, particularly the funding for the wall, is likely to have an impact on the negotiation of the broader FY 2018 budget, and the battle over this funding could lead to a government shutdown in the fall.   

Sen. Tillis Puts Hold on USCIS Director Nomination Over H-2B Guestworker Visas

In an attempt to get approvals for more visas under the H-2B non-agricultural guestworker program, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), has put a “hold” on the nomination of Lee Francis Cissna for Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). A “hold” allows a single lawmaker to delay action on bringing a nominee to the Senate floor for a vote. Democrats already have a hold on Cissna and other Judiciary Committee nominees as part of a broader strategy to protest Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare.

The H-2B seasonal non-agricultural guestworker program has an annual cap of 66,000, but this cap has been increased through Congressional action in the past. This year, Congress gave DHS Secretary John Kelly the authority to issue up to 70,000 additional visas on a last-minute appropriations rider, but he still has not made a decision regarding their allocation. Both the FY2017 budget resolution and FY2018 budget proposal include riders limiting the protections available for H-2B workers. North Carolina is one of the top ten recipients of H-2B workers, and Sen. Tillis has stated that there are not enough U.S. workers to fill summer job vacancies. North Carolina is also a top ten recipient of agricultural workers under the H-2A program and, as with the H-2B non-agricultural visas, agricultural employers in the state similarly assert that there are not enough U.S. workers to fill temporary jobs in agriculture.  

Anti-Union Farm Bill Signed by Governor of North Carolina

On July 13, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed a wide-ranging farm bill which included a last minute, anti-union amendment. The amendment takes away farmworkers’ freedom to use payroll deductions for voluntary union dues or fees and makes it illegal for farmworkers and growers to sign an agreement as part of settlements of lawsuit. The amendments are aimed at the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC), the only agricultural workers’ union in the state, which has collective bargaining agreements with several hundred growers on behalf of thousands of farmworkers in the state. FLOC and the NC State AFL-CIO had previously denounced the amendment, characterizing it as an attack on farmworkers’ rights and retaliation for a series of lawsuits brought by farmworkers against several farms in the state, one of which is owned by a NC state Senator who sponsored the bill.  Despite a campaign by FLOC and allies, Gov. Cooper refused to veto the bill. 

DHS Sec. Kelly Says Administration Will Not Commit to Protecting DACA or TPS

In a closed door meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) on July 12, DHS Sec. John Kelly stated that although he personally supports the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, he cannot guarantee that the Administration will defend it in court.  At the meeting, Sec. Kelly urged Congress to find a legislative solution. When asked about the fate of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), particularly for the countries of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, whose designations are due to expire next year, Sec. Kelly did not commit to their renewal. Shortly after the meeting, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), who was present at the meeting and is the Chair of the Immigration Task Force of the CHC, issued a call to action to protect DACA and TPS and fight mass deportations,  describing immigration as “an integral part of who we are as a country.”  

Farmworker Justice “Unidos” Initiative Seeks to Empower Farmworker Communities

Rebecca Young, Senior Project Director at Farmworker Justice, recently spoke about the importance of empowering existing and emerging leadership among the immigrant farmworker community. While discussing Farmworker Justice’s “Unidos” initiative (in collaboration with the Vista Community Clinic), Young emphasized the importance of addressing concerns about increased immigration enforcement as part of the initiative’s efforts to improve access to cancer screening and treatment for immigrant farmworkers and their families.  Please click here for the full article.