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The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, H.R. 4916, introduced by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), would grant amnesty - including work permits, green cards, and a path to citizenship - to illegal aliens who have been unlawfully employed in agriculture during the past two years. In fact, illegal aliens who spent just most weekends working in agriculture over two years would qualify, since only 1,035 hours or 180 workdays are required.

The purpose of the bill, ostensibly, is to ensure a stable and legal agriculture workforce. Naturally, the first step would be to reform the H-2A guest worker program that allows employers to import an unlimited number of workers each year for temporary, seasonal agricultural work. The current H-2A program, while used successfully by many growers to obtain agricultural workers each year, is bureaucratic and cumbersome. But, no, unfortunately, that is not the primary focus of H.R. 4916. Rather than simply streamlining the H-2A program, Title I of the bill is all about amnesty.

Congress knows that giving amnesty to illegal agricultural workers will fail to produce a stable, legal workforce because they’ve tried it before.

Congress passed an agricultural amnesty in 1986, as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). That law was sold to the American people as a one-time amnesty, in exchange for border security and a prohibition on hiring illegal aliens in the future. The United States ended up giving amnesty to almost 1.1million “Special Agricultural Workers” (as they were called in IRCA), plus their spouses and minor children. But there was a catch: most of the Special Agricultural Workers left agriculture for better-paying jobs as soon as they got their work permits.

Unfortunately, to solve this attrition problem, the sponsors of the Farm Workforce ​Modernization​ Act decided to revert to the abhorrent and entirely unacceptable practice of indentured servitude, indenturing these newly amnestied agricultural workers for various durations.

Under H.R. 4916, if an alien worked unlawfully in agriculture for at least 10 years prior to the date of enactment, that alien will be granted Certified Agricultural Worker (CAW) status for 5½years with an employment authorization document that allows him or her to work for any employer in the United States, in agriculture or not. After four years in CAW status, the alien can apply for a green card and the path to citizenship, if the alien worked in agriculture for at least 575 hours or 100 workdays in each of those four years. So these longtime illegal workers are “only” indentured for four years.

However, if an alien worked unlawfully in agriculture for fewer than ten years prior to enactment, that alien also will be granted CAW status but will be required to work in agriculture for the next eight years. Aliens in this category can not apply for a green card and the path to citizenship until they have had CAW status for eight years and can show that they worked in agriculture for at least 575 hours or 100 workdays in ​each​ of the past eight years. So these aliens who worked unlawfully for less time will be indentured to agriculture for eight years before they can completely abandon farm work. Like the first category, though, they will still have an employment authorization document that is not limited to agriculture.

The bottom line, though, is that this is only a short-term—and despicable—solution for keeping workers on the farm.

Rather than providing incentives for mechanization to reduce the need for manual labor, or even just streamlining the existing H-2A program, the sponsors of H.R. 4916 decided that it is time to complete the hollowing out of several other industries, in addition to seasonal farm work. Truthfully, It is ironic that the sponsors of this bill put the word “modernization” in the title since the legislation actually proposes variations on two tried and demonstrably failed policies of the past: amnesty and indentured servitude.

In addition, they, the same sponsors who support such an egregious process of indenturing aliens as they strive to become new immigrants, kept the numerically unlimited H-2A category for seasonal work but created a new, non-seasonal, year-round category so that at least 20,000 (and potentially many more) low-paid foreign workers can be imported each year to work at dairies, meat-packing plants, fish canneries, nurseries, and more. But rest assured, after three years of this new program, the government will study H.R. 4916's impact on the wages and working conditions of the (by then) few remaining Americans and legal immigrants in these occupations!

Finally, in what appears to be an effort to placate folks who remember the results of the 1986 IRCA amnesty, the sponsors of H.R. 4916 threw in mandatory use of E-Verify to ensure that new hires are authorized to work in the United States—but ONLY for agricultural employers! The bill includes no provisions to reduce the flow of illegal immigration into the United States, but it does ensure that they won’t be employed in agriculture. Instead, they will be competing with Americans and legal immigrants for jobs with unscrupulous employers in other industries where E-Verify use is not required.

Updated: Sat, Dec 7th 2019 @ 5:36am EST