The ‘Farm Workforce Modernization Act’

Field workers pick strawberries on a farm in Oxnard, Calif., in 2013. (Reuters photo: Gus Ruelas)

David Bier of the Cato Institute draws attention to a new immigration bill that is likely to pass the Democratic House but will presumably struggle in the Republican Senate — to say nothing of the White House.

This is a piece of legislation with a lot of technical detail to it, including changes to the minimum-wage requirements for legal-immigrant agricultural workers, and it’s going to require a very close reading by a lot of seasoned immigration lawyers. (See also this section-by-section and this more readable fact sheet.) But one way to think about the central dilemma it poses is this: How much are immigration skeptics willing to pay for E-Verify?

That’s a program employers can use to make sure they’re hiring legal workers. The bill would not only improve it, but mandate its use within the agricultural sector. This is a pretty big concession, and the other side should be willing to give something up for it.

But the bill seems to take E-Verify as a license to just give the entire store away to agricultural interests and pro-immigration activists. Illegal immigrants who could show 180 days of agricultural employment in the past two years and pass a background check would be eligible for legal status and eventually a path to a green card — just for being agricultural workers. Their spouses and minor kids could get legal status too. Legal immigration for agricultural workers would also get a big boost, with 40,000 new green cards annually. Meanwhile, agricultural workers on temporary H-2A visas could be sponsored for green cards and could stay in the country indefinitely while their applications were processed. H-2As would also be made available to employers who need year-round, not just seasonal, labor.

For good measure, the bill tosses in some ridiculous pork to (as the aforementioned fact sheet puts it) “improve[] the availability of farmworker housing while lowering employer costs related to providing such housing.” This includes a billion dollars “to rehabilitate housing that is aging out of USDA incentive programs,” a tripling of funding for housing-construction loans and grants, and more funding for rental assistance. In other words, the bill lets agricultural businesses bring in more foreign labor, and then uses taxpayer money to subsidize the costs of bringing in that labor.

The bill’s drafters are right that they could ask for a lot in return for mandating E-Verify in the agricultural sector. But they got a little carried away there.

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