Farmworker Legalization Sought in New Senate Bill

By Casey Wooten

Senate Democrats are pushing a bill that would grant legal status to long-term agricultural workers in the U.S., but the long-discussed idea has had little support from the other side of the aisle.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) and Kamala Harris (Calif.) introduced the Agricultural Farm Workers Program Act, legislation to create a “blue card” program for agricultural workers.

Released May 3, the bill preserves the H-2A agricultural guest worker program but also gives farm employees who have worked in the U.S. for more than 100 days in each of the previous two years legal status in the form of a blue card. Farmworkers who maintain blue-card status over three to five years would then be eligible for a green card, a lawful permanent residency permit.

The blue card program was included in the failed 2013 immigration overhaul bill, which passed the Senate but died in the House. Before that, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation including a similar blue card program in 2007, though that bill never got a vote.

So far, only Democratic senators have signed on to the legislation this go-around, making its advancement unlikely. Still, the move serves an an opening bid for congressional Democrats as the Trump administration gears up to overhaul U.S. immigration policy.

Nearly half of the 1.1 million farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented, according to the Department of Agriculture.

“The failure to fix our broken immigration system has had real economic consequences for our farmers and ranchers,” Bennet said. “This bill serves as a necessary step until we can enact a long-term solution by passing comprehensive immigration reform.”

Immigration Priorities

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has put immigration high on his priority list and recently told Harvest Public Media that foreign agricultural workers aren’t the focus of the Trump administration’s enforcement plans. Perdue also said he had hired a labor lawyer from the American Farm Bureau Federation to craft a program that would keep agricultural workers in the U.S.

In his March 23 confirmation hearing, Perdue said he would advocate for changes to the H-2A program such as allowing dairy farmers to employ more foreign workers.

Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Bloomberg BNA in an emailed statement that his group would continue to work with the administration to find a way to overhaul immigration policy in a way that retains farm workers.

“It is critical that the problem be solved both in the short and long term,” Schlegel said. “Providing a path to legal status for current agricultural workers clearly is one aspect of the problem that must be solved, and we welcome constructive dialogue and proposals that seek to address this issue.”

Immigration and worker advocacy groups such as Farmworker Justice and United Farm Workers praised the legislation.

To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at cwooten@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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