WASHINGTON — Undocumented immigrant farmworkers, including those in the dairy industry, could have access to work visas and green cards through a new bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, co-sponsored by 44 representatives including Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-21, would provide undocumented farmworkers a pathway to permanent legal status, or green cards, and farmworkers in the year-round dairy industry access to the H-2A work visa program, which is typically reserved for seasonal and temporary agriculture industry.
Proponents of the bill have said it’s a critical move to support the agriculture industry in its time of crisis due to a struggling economy, attacks on seasonal worker visa programs and an increasing number of employee audits by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
“Agriculture is the backbone of the North Country, which is why I am proud to cosponsor this bipartisan legislation to ensure that our farmers have access to a stable, legal workforce, allowing them to continue to product abundant, safe and affordable food,” Stefanik said in a press release.
Stefanik, who did not respond to multiple requests for further comment, continued in the press release that the “securing a reliable and skilled workforce is essential to maintain the success of (agriculture) operations” that create many jobs and drive the economy of the North Country.
The legislation stipulates that immigrant farmworkers who have worked in agriculture for at least two years prior to the introduction of the bill would be eligible for “certified agriculture worker status.” The status can be adjusted to lawful permanent residency — or a green card — if the immigrant has worked a specified numbers of years before and after the bill is enacted.
The bill would also streamline the application process for seasonal worker visas, raise wages and allow agriculture workers access to more green cards.
The access to the H-2A work visa would be groundbreaking for the large dairy industry in upstate New York, which was comprised of nearly 4,300 farms in 2017, according to the state Department of Agriculture. With low-skill work visas currently reserved for temporary, seasonal industry, the dairy farm industry tends to have largely undocumented workers.
In addition, the grueling nature of dairy farming jobs means most of the 55,000 dairy workers in New York are undocumented immigrants, according to the 2017 report “Milked” about dairy farms by the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York. This is especially true of larger farms with greater needs for milking labor and less access to family labor.
Nationally, around half of dairy farmworkers are believed to be undocumented, according a 2016-16 JBS International report prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor.
The New York numbers are unknown, however in the Milked study alone, 93 percent of the farmworkers surveyed were undocumented.
Advocates see some positives in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, such as providing immigrant farmworkers access to legal status and green cards, which would alleviate certain vulnerabilities to exploitation undocumented workers face.
However, advocates are also concerned that this legislation is a double-edged sword that sustains certain vulnerabilities and introduces new ones.
“Historically we have seen that the guest worker program is a pipeline for labor trafficking, and we see very weak oversight of existing guest worker regulations,” said Emma Kreyche, advocacy director with the Worker Justice Center of New York. “We have reason to be deeply skeptical of expanding this general model for managing the farm labor force and stabilizing it.”
Because the farmworkers’ visas are tied to their employer, Kreyche said employers are granted a high level of power and control over the farmworkers that can be abused. For example, if a worker speaks out about not getting compensated for all their hours worked, a farmer could simply not invite them back for the H-2A program the following year.
“Your eligibility for this program is highly reliant on remaining in the good graces of the employer,” Kreyche said. “It leaves workers incredibly vulnerable, and of course undocumented workers are also extremely vulnerable.”
The 2017 Milked report found that one-fifth of dairy farmworkers were threatened by their boss, manager or other workers about their ethnicity or citizenship status.
Former dairy farmer Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, said that while he had never personally seen exploitation of immigrant workers among the small farms he was connected to, he doesn’t doubt that such behavior could take place, particularly on larger farms. Despite this, Tague is in support of the bill.
“I would love to see folks on a pathway to citizenship if they’re going to come here and be good citizens and work,” Tague said. “But this doesn’t go after the underlying problem of the financial crisis that our farmers are in — it goes back to pricing structure.”
U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-19, was not one of the bill’s co-sponsors, but said it looks promising on paper.
“This bipartisan agreement is a major development for farmers who have struggled for years to access the workforce they need to stay successful and operational,” he said in an emailed statement. “I look forward to talking to upstate dairy farmers and apple growers while I’m back in the district to fully understand the bill’s impact.”
Tague and Assemblyman Stephen Hawley, R-139, both brought up concerns about how this legislation, if passed, would interact with the Farm Labor Rights Act signed into law this year. Both assemblymen voted against the bill, which ensures farm workers get paid overtime after working 60 hours a week and that they get one day off each week.
Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-116, is also in support of the bill.
“I’ve talked to farmers consistently and they’re looking for solutions,” Walczyk said. “Namely, access to the H-2A program.”
Assemblymember Didi Barrett, D-106, was not available for comment Friday.
Massarah Mikati covers the New York State Legislature and immigration for Johnson Newspaper Corp. Email her at email@example.com, or find her on Twitter @massarahmikati.
Editor's note: This story reflects a correction to Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik's political affilitation.