Farmworker Justice Update - April 3 Hearing on Immigration and Agriculture

Farmworker Justice Update: House Hearing on Immigration and Agriculture

On April 3, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship held a hearing entitled “Securing the Future of American Agriculture.” The witnesses at the hearing included Arturo Rodriguez (Former UFW President), Tom Nassif (President of the Western Growers Association), Bill Brim (President of Lewis Taylor Farms) and Areli Arteaga, a child of farmworkers and former farmworker who now works for the UFW. The Representatives present during at least part of the hearing were Reps. Lofgren (D-CA), Jayapal (D-WA), Correa (D-CA), Neguse (D-CO), Escobar (D-TX), Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL), Garcia (D-TX), Buck (R-CO), Collins (R-GA) and Armstrong (R-ND). Rep. Panetta (D-CA) was also present in the audience, though he is not a member of the Subcommittee on Immigration.

Opening Statements

At the start of the hearing, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the Chair of the Subcommittee, highlighted the current lack of options for farmworkers to gain lawful immigration status and stressed that there should be a “seat at America’s table for those who have long grown the food served on it.” Rep. Lofgren mentioned her bill, the “Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019,” as a way to ensure that farmworkers have a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship. She noted that on average farmworkers have been in the country for 18 years and that many constituents are “still in business because of them.”

Rep. Buck (R-CO), the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, focused on criticizing the H-2A program as “cumbersome and full of red tape,” while at the same time seeking expansion of the temporary and seasonal H-2A program to the year-round dairy industry. His comments were consistent with grower complaints about the H-2A program and their desire for a program with little government oversight and minimal worker protection.

Witness Testimony

During his testimony, Mr. Rodriguez highlighted the vital role of immigrant farmworkers in feeding the country and stressed that they cannot continue to be treated like second class workers. Mr. Rodriguez was joined at the hearing by multiple UFW members who work in a variety of crops and collectively have over 200 years of experience in working in agriculture. Mr. Rodriguez stated that the goal of any new proposal must be the improvement of farmworker wages and working conditions.  Among the principles he identified which should be included in any new farmworker immigration proposal are fairness, equality of treatment, non-discrimination, economic freedom and the ability to attain permanent residency.

Mr. Nassif recognized the contributions of immigrant farmworkers and stated that there should be a path to legal status for long-standing workers and their families without the need for a “touchback.” With regard to the H-2A program, he stated that any “remake” of the guestworker program should not be an “administrative nightmare.” He also stressed, both in his initial testimony and in discussing a future worker program, that the agricultural guestworker program should not have a cap (the H-2A program currently has no cap, which has allowed for its rapid growth). Mr. Nassif also spoke specifically about the dairy industry and their desire to be included in the H-2A program.

Ms. Arteaga gave a personal account of what life was like as the child of a dairy worker and a farmworker, having grown up on the dairy farm where her father worked. She described her family’s hard work and long hours, as well as the difficult choice her father made to leave his employer, who was not treating him fairly, even though he knew it would mean losing their family’s housing as well. She also noted the unfairness of farmworkers not being provided overtime, describing her feelings as a youth working in agriculture and not being paid overtime despite her long hours, even though other young people her age were paid overtime for hours worked in jobs such as retail.

Mr. Brim criticized the regulations, monitoring, and cost of the H-2A program, despite his company’s own longtime use of the program for over 20 years. (In 2008, Mr. Brim was sued by H-2A workers who had worked at his farm, Lewis Taylor Farms. The basis of the lawsuit was claims that Mr. Brim’s farms failed to pay the workers required wages and reimburse them for transportation and other expenses. The case settled in 2010.) 

Statements and Questions from Members of Congress

Rep. Collins (R-GA), who is the Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, criticized the H-2A program as not offering enough “flexibility” for employers. As part of his statement, he referred to the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) as an artificially high wage rate and characterized the current H-2A program as “unsustainable.” In fact, the AEWR is merely the average wage paid to farmworkers, as determined by a USDA survey of agricultural employers, and thus not “artificially high.” 

Rep. Jayapal (D-WA), who is the Vice-Chair of the Immigration Subcommittee, expressed respect for the “back-breaking” work done by farmworkers. She asked Ms. Arteaga whether she considered agricultural work “low-skilled” work. Ms. Arteaga detailed some of the many tasks performed by her parents and stated that she thinks the work requires a lot of skill and experience.

Rep. Buck (R-CO) expressed concern that if agricultural workers are able to get green card status or other permanent legal status, they would no longer stay in agriculture. He also mentioned the possibility of establishing a green card option for H-2A workers after a certain number of years, for example, 10 years, or something else that is “in the middle” between the H-2A program and a green card. (It is important to note that the Agricultural Worker Program Act has a requirement that workers continue to work in agriculture for 3-5 years in order to earn a green card. This provision was a compromise that resulted from employers’ concerns about the future availability of workers.)

Although both grower witnesses stated that they value farmworkers, and that “their” workers want to keep working for them, they also similarly expressed concern that if workers were able to get legal immigration status, they would leave their jobs. Mr. Rodriguez noted that most of the farmworkers present at the hearing were legally authorized to work, and had been for years, and they still chose to continue working in agriculture. He stressed that the important thing is to “elevate the status” of workers, because workers stay when their wages allow them to provide for their families and they are given decent benefits and working conditions.

Rep. Correa (D-TX) welcomed and thanked the workers in Spanish. He stated that all workers should have a path to citizenship, not just agricultural workers specifically. In response, Mr. Nassif stated that his organization has advocated for a pathway to citizenship for the existing workforce, as this is something they have earned, and stated that their families should also be protected.

Rep. Armstrong (R-ND) stated that he often gets calls from agricultural employers who complain about the H-2A program and described it as a “program of last resort.” He focused on year-round operations such as dairy and asked the witnesses what could be done to “streamline” the H-2A process. He also asked if there had been any discussion on allocating visas by region. Another possibility he floated was that of allowing family farmers to sponsor foreign farmworkers, stating that farmers should be able to “keep the workers they want.”

Rep. Garcia (D-TX) thanked the workers, in Spanish, for their valuable work. She also described her experience as a teenager picking cotton. She noted that even though there is a generational difference between her and Ms. Arteaga, many of the challenges faced by farmworkers today have not improved. Rep. Garcia asked Ms. Arteaga what particular issue she would prioritize in addition to providing a path to immigration status for workers. Ms. Arteaga said it was difficult to pick just one issue, but that overtime is an important issue that would have greatly benefitted her family. In response to the same question, Mr. Rodriguez reiterated the importance of elevating farmworkers’ economic situation and how unfair it is to expect workers to continue to do this difficult work without paying them a decent wage like everybody else. Rep. Garcia also stated that she was pleased to hear Mr. Nassif mention the importance of family, because ultimately “the worker is not a machine.” She noted the need to go beyond the actual work that needs to be done, and understand that workers are human beings, who are also breadwinners and loved ones. She specifically mentioned the issue of child labor as well.

Rep. Neguse (D-CO) echoed the growers and his Republican counterparts in their calls to reform the H-2A program to benefit employers and specifically asked what needs to be done in order for dairy to be able to participate in the H-2A program. Mr. Nassif stated that the definition should be changed to include year-round industries. This desire to expand H-2A to dairy and other year-round industries conflicts with the purpose of the program being to fill seasonal or temporary jobs that may be less attractive because of the job insecurity and lower annual earnings.  Instead of expanding H-2A to dairy, the conditions for dairy workers must be improved - from occupational injuries and deaths to long hours with no overtime pay. 

Rep. Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL), after welcoming the workers in Spanish, noted that she hears concerns about agricultural labor both from agricultural employers and from farmworker advocates, including the issues of inadequate housing and wage theft. Rep. Mucarsel-Powell asked Mr. Rodriguez which aspects of the H-2A program should be retained and which need to be removed. Mr. Rodriguez mentioned wages and the importance of economic stability for workers, as well as the issues of housing and transportation, and how difficult it is for workers to secure these on their own. As he stated, “H-2A workers should be treated like any other worker.” Mr. Rodriguez also highlighted the importance of dealing with recruitment abuses in order to ensure that workers do not arrive indebted and afraid.

Rep. Escobar (D-TX) also welcomed the workers in Spanish. Rep. Escobar gave Ms. Arteaga the opportunity to respond to the claim that if workers were able to get a green card they would abandon their jobs. Ms Arteaga responded that being a farmworker is a fundamental part of who her parents, and other farmworkers she knows, are. Rep. Escobar also asked Mr. Rodriguez if he thought farmworkers had earned a path to immigration status, to which he responded that there is “no doubt” about that.

Importance of Immigration Protections for Current, Experienced Workforce

Something that was never in dispute among the different witnesses and Representatives at the hearing is that there is a currently an experienced workforce willing to do the difficult and dangerous work of feeding this country, that they are essential to the success of agricultural employers’ businesses, and that they currently do not have a path to permanent residence or citizenship.

Farmworker Justice believes the solution to the agricultural industry’s reliance on immigrant workers must be to respect the contributions and humanity of those workers, whether they are currently undocumented or in the H-2A program. The Agricultural Worker Program Act (H.R. 641, S. 175), introduced in the House by Rep. Lofgren and in the Senate by Sen. Feinstein (D-CA) would do that by providing an opportunity to move forward a positive and workable solution in Congress that will meet the needs of workers, agricultural employers, and our food system. 

Additionally, any future guestworker program must ensure that farmworkers have a roadmap to immigration status and citizenship, true economic freedom and opportunity, and equality of treatment with other workers. Additionally, there should be no incentives to discriminate against U.S. workers (including newly legalized workers). Family unity is another key principle that should be advanced - neither undocumented workers nor guestworkers should have to endure being separated from their families. Additionally, to prevent recruitment abuses, any program must clearly prohibit fraud and any recruitment fees or costs for visa workers as well as require transparency in the recruitment process, along with adequate enforcement. 

As Rep. Garcia stated, farmworkers are not machines. They are human beings, with identities and aspirations that include, but are not limited to, the work that they do. The message this country is currently sending to farmworkers with its broken immigration system is clear: we will let you feed us and work for us, but we will not let you be a part of us. We must respect the humanity of farmworkers and treat them as we would treat others who contribute to our nation’s success, offering them the opportunity to be permanent members of our society and the communities they help build.

To view the full hearing on “Securing the Future of American Agriculture,” please click here.