Commonly referred to as the AG Act, the legislation was introduced to the House of Representatives by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.). There was hope of passage out of the 43-member House Judiciary Committee Tuesday. The vote was pulled back, however, when Goodlatte, who chairs the committee, determined he did not have enough votes to pass it.
The Ag Act would replace the H-2A program, which is another guest worker program that has proven impractical for dairy farms because it only offers 9-month visas. The new program could also be used by agricultural processors and custom operators, including manure haulers, says Laurie Fischer, CEO of the American Dairy Coalition (ADC).
“We are in need of a way to legalize current undocumented workers and secure legal workers for the future,” says Fischer. “This is a guest worker program at this point, and not a residency program.” The H-2C program would not allow an employee’s family to accompany him or her to the United States.
The AG Act would create a new H-2C guest worker visa that initially would be valid for 3 years. During that period, H-2C guest workers would have to “touch back” to their home countries for 45 days within that 3-year period, though the “touch back” days would not have to be consecutive. After the initial 3-year period, workers would have to renew their H-2C visas every 18 months.
Immediately upon enactment, current foreign workers would be free from arrest and deportation as USDA creates rules for the program. It would also allow current workers to return home and re-enter the United States.
Fischer acknowledges the H-2C program is not perfect and will likely be subject to change as it moves through the legislative process. “The fix for immigration will be incremental,” she says.
Part of the urgency of passing such legislation is that there is pressure to make e-Verify mandatory. Under that approach, employers would have to electronically submit new worker identification documents to the government to ensure validity. But e-Verify has been rife with problems and could create even more headaches, says Fischer.
Details of the new H-2C program are still being worked out. Under the current language of the bill, employers of H-2C visa holders would be required to withhold 10% of the employee’s salary and place it in a trust administered by USDA. These funds would be available to the employee for travel back to their home countries to fulfill the “touch back” requirement or the funds could be sent to the employee’s family. Funds that normally would be withheld from paychecks to cover Social Security and unemployment insurance would still be collected and used to fund the program.
Before employers could apply for H-2C workers, they would have to post help wanted ads on their websites for 30 days. This would be done to ensure native born workers are aware of job openings, and offer proof after 30 days that the farm was unable to fill the position if no native-born workers were hired.