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Dairy industry needs Farm Workforce Act

November 21, 2019 12:56 pm

A bipartisan bill introduced in the House last week could give long struggling immigrant farm workers, including those in the dairy industry, access to work visas and green cards and complete another road to citizenship.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, co-sponsored by 44 representatives including Rep. Elise Stefanik, D-21, would provide undocumented farm workers a pathway to permanent legal status, or green cards, and farm workers in the year-round dairy industry access to the H-2A work visa program, something typically reserved for the seasonal and temporary agriculture industry.

This will be no small feat, coming at a time of crisis for an agriculture industry buffeted by an uncertain economy, assaults on seasonal worker visa programs and an increasing number of employee audits by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

The proposed legislation stipulates that immigrant farm workers who have worked in agriculture for at least two years prior to the introduction of the bill will 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 will also streamline the application process for seasonal worker visas, raise wages and allow agriculture workers access to more green cards.

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 now 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 a 2017 report about dairy farms issued by the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York. This is true of large farms with greater needs for milking labor and less access to family labor.

We urge representatives to do all they can to support enactment of this bill. Migrant workers are the cornerstone of local dairy farms and dairy farms are among the cornerstones of the Twin County economy. Both need to be protected.