Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Immigration Reform Was Generally Positive Except for Senators’ Push for Guestworker Program for Dairy Workers

Wednesday's  judiciary committee hearing appeared to be a good step forward for comprehensive immigration reform. Unlike last week’s house judiciary panel, which largely pitted high-skilled visa reform against other pieces of immigration reform, yesterday’s hearing clearly focused on comprehensive reform. The members of the gang of eight on the judiciary committee, Senators Graham, Schumer and Flake, presented a unified message that was quite positive and optimistic about the potential for enacting a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Of note, Senator Graham said that working out the plans for citizenship and border security is not going to be a problem; the sticking point will be creating a temporary worker program. He then added that a goal of any program should be not to displace US workers. Secretary Napolitano responded by saying that “the devil is in the details,” and then added that there needs to be protections for both US workers and guestworkers in any guestworker program. Currently, the US Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO are negotiating behind closed doors to figure out a proposal for the future flow of immigrant workers that is mutually agreeable to both business and labor. Senator Graham concluded by saying that there has never been a better time to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Senator Feinstein stated that she is working with farmworker and grower representatives on an AgJOBS compromise bill to be included in the comprehensive legislation. Farmworker Justice applauds the efforts of these Senators to reach a workable agreement that will provide a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants that includes farmworkers and their families.

It was disappointing that Senators Franken and Leahy both repeated grower messaging by criticizing the H-2A program and pointing to the need to expand the guestworker program to dairy workers. As Senator Franken astutely pointed out, cows are not seasonal, so they require year-round workers. What he failed to acknowledge is the reason that year-round jobs are excluded from the H-2A temporary agricultural guestworker program. The H-2A program is limited to temporary and seasonal agricultural workers, based on the understanding that in some instances, agricultural jobs that are temporary or seasonal may truly be harder to fill because workers often want year-round, stable employment. Dairy does not face this problem. Dairy employers can offer competitive wages and working conditions (which are currently poor) to attract and retain workers. Moreover, dairy already has farmworkers. While many of them are undocumented, legalizing them will not only solve that problem, but it will also place these workers in a better position to bargain and negotiate for better wages and working conditions, improving job retention on dairy farms.

Despite worker protections in the H-2A program, it is rife with abuse. Because guestworkers are tied to their employer by their visa, they often tolerate wage theft and workplace abuse out of fear of deportation. Those that do speak out are often sent home and blacklisted from returning the following year. We reject efforts to weaken the modest labor protections in the H-2A program. More worker protections are needed not less. Congress should not create an underclass of permanent dairy guestworkers tied to their employer by their visa. To the extent dairy workers are needed in the future, Congress should provide a legal path for workers to come as immigrants, with their families, on visas that afford them economic freedom and mobility and the option of eventually becoming citizens.

Most of the rest of the discussion in yesterday’s judiciary hearing revolved around enforcement, legalization of the 11 million and family reunification. Panel witness Janet Murguia, President of NCLR, spoke about how we benefit from the labor of undocumented workers, including those that produce the food we eat. Another witness, Jose Antonio Vargas, also stood up for farmworkers, when he said that there is nothing low-skilled about harvesting crops and that farmworkers need to be protected as well as Dreamers and other workers. Farmworker Justice applauds these comments and continues to press for a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million that includes farmworkers and their families and an immigration system that offers immigrant farmworkers economic freedom and mobility and the opportunity to become citizens.

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