It may be just a long shot, but a bill designed to replace the current H-2A guest worker program for agriculture, long considered one racked with shortcomings and full of red tape, has been more of a burr under the saddle of most U.S. farm operations seeking to boost their domestic workforce with qualified workers from Mexico and other international points of origin.
Lack of labor for produce and other vegetable and specialty crop farmers, and, to a lesser degree, a shortage of dairy and ranch hands, has cost agriculture operations in recent years as ripe fruits and vegetables in the field often cannot be harvested fast enough to ensure quality and flavor.
The Agricultural Guest Worker Act, or Ag Act, placed on the House Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday by author and sponsor Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, narrowly survived its first hurdle after being passed by a 17 to 16 vote Wednesday afternoon. It will now be scheduled for more discussions in the weeks ahead.
Texas Farm Bureau (TFB) national legislative director Laramie Adams said TFB members and staff have been pushing hard to support this bill and were instrumental in aiding the Judiciary Committee in understanding the importance of the changes needed by farmers and ranchers as they continue to face the challenges as a result of farm worker shortages.
"TFB’s action had a direct [and tremendously] positive influence on the final outcome of the Committee vote. We coordinated conference calls with Texas committee members to stress the importance of a workable guest worker program for our farmers, ranchers and dairymen," Adams said. "TFB members explained to our lawmakers exactly why new legislation is needed and what would happen without one. We look forward to continuing to work with the Judiciary Committee members to shepherd this legislation through the process."
CURRENT PROGRAMS NEED IMPROVEMENT
Chairman Adams also explained to the Committee the need to improve the existing guest worker program. He said the bill would replace the H-2A system that Goodlatte called expensive, time consuming and flawed.
"The House Judiciary Committee approved the Ag Act this week to replace the broken H-2A program with a reliable, efficient and fair program and to provide American farmers access to a legal, stable supply of workers for seasonal, as well as year-round, work," Goodlatte told reporters following the Committee vote.
Under the terms of the new bill, currently undocumented farm workers would be encouraged to apply for new documentation that would let them work legally on farms in the United States. It would also, for the first time, allow dairies to participate in the guest worker program; aquaculture operations, food processors and others would also be covered.
But perhaps the greatest benefit is that it would allow more guest workers to acquire agricultural jobs in the United States than in years past, an issue that has flamed unrest among many produce and specialty crop producers.
From green chile farmers in New Mexico to fruit and nut growers in California and Texas, a shortage of farm and ranch hands, especially during busy times of the year, has caused financial challenges. Many farmers of such products actually reduced planted acres in some instances to reduce the amount of ripe crops left in the field because it could not picked fast enough.
One of the issues that at least one committee member questioned was a change in the administration of the new quest worker bill. Since its inception, the guest worker program has been administered by the Department of Labor, where the H-2A program is currently housed. But if the new bill should become the Agricultural Guest Worker Act by Congressional authority, the bill would be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). One Committee member questioned whether USDA was geared up to police a program of that magnitude on such short notice.
"These changes will help ensure that our meat and produce continue to be grown in America and that our nation’s agricultural industry thrives in the global marketplace," Goodlatte said in a TFB release Wednesday. "I look forward to continue working with members of Congress on this bill so that farmers can continue growing our food and our economy with the assurance that their labor needs will be met."
House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway of Texas said he has had his eye on the bill for some time, and believes the time is right for an ag worker program that respects both our nation’s immigration laws and keeps American agriculture competitive.
He praised the work of Goldlatte and said he looks forward to working to shepherd the legislation through the House.