Guest-Worker Reform Ahead? The much-needed AgJOBS bill could reach Congress soon

January 12, 2010 07:44 AM
Immigrant labor makes up half of the U.S. dairy industry's work force.

In the workplace world of immigrant labor, high-profile raids are out, for now. But I-9 audits are in.

Employers, rather than employees, are the primary work-site targets of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And advocates for AgJOBS (the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act bill) are pushing hard to pass guest-worker reform this year.

"No issue is as fundamental to the survival” of American agriculture as immigration reform, says Craig Regelbrugge, vice president of government relations for the American Nursery and Landscape Association and co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR).

2010 could offer a window of opportunity for passing AgJOBS, he adds.

"The bill would most likely be taken up as part of a broader immigration effort, or could be part of an incremental step toward comprehensive immigration reform,” Regelbrugge says.

Although the health care debate and economic concerns prevented AgJOBS from being considered in 2009, Regelbrugge believes the coming weeks could see serious progress for the proposed legislation. The Senate is most likely to consider
immigration first.

The AgJOBS bill has strong bipartisan support, he says. It has solid champions in Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and U.S. Representatives Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.). The bill also has the support of key leaders in Congress and the Obama administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "And I think USDA Secretary [Tom] Vilsack will be with us,” Regelbrugge adds.
AgJOBS would provide an effective, legal means for foreign laborers to work in the agriculture industry, Regelbrugge says. The proposed legislation offers a two-part solution: a long-term resolution with sweeping guest-worker, or H-2A, reforms; and a "bridge” that offers experienced farm workers an opportunity to earn legal status in the U.S.

AgJOBS does not guarantee citizenship for immigrants, nor does it prohibit a foreign worker from someday achieving U.S. citizenship.

"AgJOBS takes better care of dairy than any other industry because it offers a year-round worker provision,” Regelbrugge says. "This is worth fighting for.”

Originally brought up in 2003, AgJOBS was reintroduced in the current House of Representatives as H.R. 2414, with 57 co-sponsors. In the Senate, it's known as S. 1038, with 21 co-sponsors. 
The bill is urgently needed, since agriculture faces daunting labor force demographics and growing enforcement threats, Regelbrugge says.

Immigration enforcement increasingly is targeting employers rather than workers, with a record number of I-9 audits. "We're in dangerous waters for employers now,” he says.

Employers are required to com-plete and retain I-9 forms for each employee. I-9s must show employees' identity and work eligibility.

"It's not like we've been hiding” from I-9 or other immigrant labor requirements, Regelbrugge says. "We've been begging Congress for a solution for almost 15 years.”

Regelbrugge urges producers to support ACIR's national efforts to pass the AgJOBS bill. In addition to financial and grassroots support, producers can send a letter to their congressional representatives. 

"Mobilize support in your own world,” Regelbrugge says. 



U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is placing increased emphasis on I-9 form audits. The move is part of a recent shift to focus on employers rather than employees as the federal agency cracks down on illegal labor.

In November, ICE announced it would audit the hiring records of 1,000 U.S. businesses for employment eligibility compliance. Four months earlier, ICE issued 654 notices to businesses suspected of using illegal labor. More notices could be on the way.

Before ICE makes an unexpected visit to your dairy to conduct an audit, execute a search warrant or apprehend employees for alleged immigration law violations, try these proactive steps:

  • Review your employment practices to ensure they comply with the law. Make sure your staff is carrying out your employment verification policies and procedures in a consistent manner.
  • Review your record-keeping policies to ensure that you are keeping records for the required periods of time. Perform a "spot check” of I-9 forms and other documents to make sure they are being properly and consistently filled out by responsible staff.
  • Designate a management representative to meet and talk with federal officials when they visit your business. Teach your representative appropriate procedures, including when to call the owner or the company's attorney. Make sure that other employees know to refer inquiries from the government to your designated representative.
  • Tell your company representative to always be polite and assume an attitude of cooperation with federal officials, but to always ask for proper identification before doing so, if it is not offered by the officials.
  • Educate designated company representatives that federal agents must have a search warrant to enter the premises of a farm (or open property being used for agricultural purposes) to seize evidence or apprehend employees, unless the owner or its designated agent consents or the property is located within 25 miles of the U.S. border.
  • In the event of a criminal investigation as evidenced by the issuance of a search warrant authorizing the seizure of computer records and other employment-related documents, review the search warrant and make sure that only those items listed on the warrant are taken. Make an inventory of what is taken. Call your company attorney as soon as possible to seek advice and determine how much you and other employees should cooperate, particularly with regard to interviews.

Source: American Nursery and Landscape Association

Bonus content:

Read the House version of the AgJOBS bill

Read the Senate version of the AgJOBS bill

Learn more about AgJOBS

ICE Advisory: "Know Your Workforce – The Key to Immigration Compliance”


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