WASHINGTON — A bill that would give immigrant farm workers access to work visas and green cards was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which has 62 bipartisan co-sponsors including Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-21, and Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-19, passed in the House 260-165. The legislation, first introduced last month, 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, which is typically reserved for seasonal and temporary agriculture industry.
“I was proud to help the House pass this bipartisan legislation to ensure our farmers have access to a stable, legal workforce, allowing them to continue to produce abundant, safe, and affordable food,” Stefanik said in a press release. “North Country farmers have been waiting for agricultural labor reform for years, and this is a major step towards a real solution to the issues facing their workforce.”
Delgado, who co-sponsored the bill later on, echoed Stefanik, saying in a statement the legislation ends a “decades-old impasse in our agriculture economy.”
“Supporting our family farmers in NY-19 must include ensuring they have access to a reliable workforce,” said Delgado, who is part of the House Agriculture Committee. “During my town halls and farm tours across the district, I’ve heard from dairy, organic, and diversified farmers about the need to modernize and streamline the H-2A visa program.”
Proponents of the bill have said it’s a critical move to support the agriculture industry — particularly year-round industries — 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.
The access to H-2A work visas 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. Because low-skill work visas are currently reserved for temporary, seasonal industries, the dairy farm industry tends to have largely undocumented workers.
The bill would not only give farm workers access to legal status and eventually green cards, but would also streamline the application process for seasonal worker visas, raise wages and allow agriculture workers access to more green cards.
Local legislators have been overwhelmingly supportive of the bill, saying, like Stefanik, that would help address employment gaps the agriculture industry has been seeing.
Advocates see some positives in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act 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,” Emma Kreyche, advocacy director with the Worker Justice Center of New York, told Johnson News last month. “We have reason to be deeply skeptical of expanding this general model for managing the farm labor force and stabilizing it.”
Because the farm workers’ visas are tied to their employer, Kreyche said employers are granted a high level of power and control over the farm workers 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.”
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.