House Approves Farmworker Amnesty, Promotes Visa Workers over Americans

FILE- In this Sept. 18, 2018, file photo, farmworkers pick melons in the early morning hours in Huron, Calif. On Thursday, Dec. 6, the Labor Department issues revised data on productivity in the third quarter. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

Nearly all House Democrats, plus a group of 34 Republicans, voted Wednesday to approve an amnesty for illegal farmworkers and to outsource more of the nation’s farm workforce to cheap H-2A visa workers.

The bill, H.R. 5038, would likely amnesty more than a million illegal aliens, and it also subsidizes farm companies that hire more H-2A visa workers instead of hiring Americans.

Those subsidies for hiring foreign H-2A workers include rules to cut the H-2A workers’ pay below the expected 2020 rates, plus massive housing subsidies for the migrant workers. The biggest subsidy, however, is that employers will be allowed to dangle the prize of Americans’ citizenship to H-2A migrants who agree to work at low wages for long hours in harsh conditions.

Americans comprise roughly three-quarters of the 2.1 million workers in farming, fishing, and forestry, according to a November 2018 report by the Pew Research Center. In contrast, the workforce includes 325,000 illegal workers, or one-in-six of the workforce, said Pew. The estimate of working illegal aliens is far below the Democrats’ estimate of two million illegal aliens who will benefit from an amnesty.

In 2019, farm companies hired roughly 250,000 H-2A workers but complained bitterly about their rising wages in the nation’s good economy. There is no cap on the number of H-2A migrant workers who can be imported into the United States.

The subsidies for hiring H-2As will also discourage farm companies from buying the American-made farm machinery that reduces the need for farmworkers. If American farmers then decline to develop and buy modern machinery, such as semi-automated fruit pickers, they will lag further behind their increasingly sophisticated foreign rivals.

Immigration reform groups, such as NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, slammed the bill as unfair to Americans and agriculture employees. “Absolutely disgraceful anti-modernity corporatist giveaway,” said Andrew Good, an analyst at NumbersUSA.

Some Democrat-tied groups, such as the United Food and Commercial Workers union, also spoke up against the subsidies for hiring H-2As.

The opposition may have dramatically reduced the number of Republicans who voted for the bill. “The proposal also garnered the support of 34 Republicans, although proponents were hopeful up to 100 GOP lawmakers would vote for the bill,” TheHill.com reported. The final tally showed that 161 Republicans voted against the amnesty and outsourcing bill.

The GOP no-votes included three GOP cosponsors of the bill: Utah Rep. John Curtis, Ohio Rep. Bob Gibbs, and Utah Rep. Chris Stewart.

Three Democrats voted against the bill, while 226 Democrats voted for the bill. The three Democrat defectors were Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, Utah Rep. Ben McAdams, and Maine Rep. Jared Golden. Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib did not vote.

This bipartisan rewrite of the agricultural labor market in favor of employers — regardless of the likely damage to Americans and their communities — got little coverage by establishment reporters. For example, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Associated Press ignored the huge debate — even though all three outlets published pro-migrant articles on a town meeting on December 9 about refugees in Bismarck, North Dakota.

The silence by the established media helped the amnesty and outsourcing bill, said William Gheen, founder of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC. “I did not detect anything about this vote, other than Breitbart … Drudge readers were completely in the dark,” he said, adding that President Donald Trump might sign the deal because it benefits farm companies and investors.

No Republicans or Democrats spoke up for the free market or even for American workers during Wednesday’s one-hour debate on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Nor did any legislators speak up for the American communities, which have been ravaged by a combination of job losses and deadly opioid abuse since the 2008 economic crash and which may recover if farm wages continue to rise in Donald Trump’s “Hire American” economy.

Instead, legislators from both parties lauded the bill as a benefit for business — although 161 Republicans eventually voted against the bill because of the bill’s offers an amnesty to perhaps two million illegal workers and family members.

Legislators sought “to come up with a bill to deal with the labor situation that we have in this country, to provide a certain legal labor force,” said GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse, who owns orchards in Washington state, and who was the leading GOP sponsor of the legislation. “That’s what brought together a bipartisan group of members of Congress, representatives from agricultural groups around the country, as well as agricultural labor groups,” he said.

Newhouse praised the legislation for capping the wages of farmworkers and for allowing dairies to use H-2A workers:

It will cap the ever-skyrocketing wage growth [for H-2A workers] in this country to 3.25 percent a year. Some states next year are facing a 9.5 percent increase. On top of that, it will allow full-time employers, like dairies, to be able to take advantage and utilize the H-2A program.

“This is not an amnesty bill,” said California GOP Rep. Doug LaMalfa. “Yes, there is an opportunity for citizenship,” he said, adding, “we don’t want them coming across [the border] illegally. We want them to come across with a certificate that they’ve been vetted … We desperately need the labor.”

“I appreciate my colleagues’ desire to fix this problem and provide our farmers and ranchers with a long-term solution to the labor supply problems in this country,” said Colorado GOP Rep. Ken Buck.

Democrats praised the bill, without acknowledging that more than half of the farmworkers in the United States are Americans, either native-born or immigrants.

The bill is “a historic victory for farmworkers and for growers,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who seemed to assume that all farmworkers are illegal aliens. The farmworkers deserve “dignity and respect,” she said, without mentioning the American workers and families who will lose jobs, wages, dignity, and respect when they are sidelined by employers eager to hire cheap H-2A visa workers.

Democrats praised the illegal workers, without acknowledging that Americans provide more than half the agricultural workforce.

“This bill would recognize the important work that undocumented workers do in our agriculture industry,” said Texas Democrat, Rep. Joaquin Castro.  “It would recognize that their work deserves respect, that it is dignified, that it has a place in our country and that they have a place in our country. It would do so by allowing for a path to legal status for these workers. For two million folks, it would mean that they would no longer face the threat of deportation.”

“Many of these workers leave their families and journey to the United States in hopes of finding decent work at a respectable wage, yet far too often are subjugated to exploitive serfdom,” said Democratic Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur. “That is why I stand heartened that the Farm Workforce Modernization Act has been brought forth to this House floor.”

“I cannot forget going out and talking to farmworkers who are so afraid because of enforcement, [that] they are afraid to leave their homes to go to church on Sunday morning.” said Democrat Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a former immigration lawyer who now represents part of Silicon Valley.”That’s not the kind of situation we want to have in America.”

In a November hearing, Lofgren described the corporatist bargain that created the amnesty and outsourcing bill:

The bill implements a wage freeze for the year 2020 [for 250,000 H-2A visa workers]. This is a very important matter for employers, [and] wages are expected to increase by another seven to eight percent next year. Under this bill, those wage increases won’t happen.

This bill adds wage caps to prevent wages [H-2A visa workers] going up by more than 3.25 percent in most of the country. Considering that the AEWR rates [Adverse Effect Wage Rate for H-2As] recently went up 23 percent in certain states, this is a big concession. Those kinds of wage increases would no longer happen under this bill.

These are significant wage reforms — a recent report by the CATO institute found that the bill, if enacted, would have saved farmers $324 million in labor expenses in 2019 alone.

Lofgren excused her compromise with agriculture employers:

I would prefer that these wage concessions were not in the bill. But this bill is a compromise to make sure that the farmworkers today that are looking over their shoulder in fear of deportation will no longer face that nightmare. And it is a compromise that allows additional people to come in to meet the growing [worker] needs of our agriculture sector.

In 2017, Lofgren recognized that migrants would accept low wages and poor conditions if they are offered a legal way to get themselves and their families into the United States.

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