The new Agricultural Guest Worker Act would create a guest worker program that allows up to an additional 500,000 non-residents to work year-round on U.S. farms and ranches.
Referred to as the AG Act, legislation was introduced to the House by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R.-Va. There was hope of passage from the 43-member House Judiciary Committee. 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, another guest worker program that has proven impractical for dairy farms because it only offers nine-month visas. The new program could also be used by agricultural processors and custom operators, says Laurie Fischer, CEO of the American Dairy Coalition.
“We are in need of a way to legalize current undocumented workers and secure legal workers for the future,” Fischer says. “This is a guest worker program at this point, and not a residency program.” The H-2C program would not allow employees’ families to accompany them to the U.S.
The AG Act would create a new H-2C guest worker visa that initially would be valid for three years. H-2C guest workers would have to “touch back” to their home countries for 45 days during that three-year period, though the touch back days would not have to be consecutive. After the initial three-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 U.S.
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 to pass such legislation is the pressure to make E-Verify mandatory. Under that route, employers would have to electronically submit new worker identification documents to the government to ensure validity. However, E-Verify has been rife with problems and could create more headaches, Fischer says.
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.