House Pushes Amnesty, Subsidy for Lower-Tech, Cheap Labor Farms

Migrant workers harvest strawberries at a farm near Oxnard, Calif. Ventura County is one of two counties where labor organizers hope to get a Bill of Rights passed to protect farm workers from abuse and wage theft.
Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

House leaders will introduce a farmworker amnesty plan on Wednesday that will provide citizenship to at least one million illegal migrants and to a future flood of visa workers who agree to work on U.S. farms for eight years.

The “Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019” amnesty would create two huge streams of low-wage labor for farm companies and likely for meatpackers and other agricultural employers.

One stream would be from the population of one million existing farmworker illegal aliens who will be amnestied and redefined as “Certified Agricultural Workers” so they can get green cards and citizenship after several years — regardless of the “public charge” rule which bars welfare-reliant migrants from citizenship.

The second stream would come from illegal aliens who sign up to be legal H-2A visa farmworkers and from a treasure box of 40,000 green cards per year for employers to pay their lower-wage H-2A workers.

The bill also changes the existing H-2A farmworker visa program by setting a 3.25 percent cap on annual wage growth and by allowing some H-2A workers to work year-round for dairies or non-agriculture companies.

The “modernization act” will preserve the pre-modern, lower-tech, lower-productivity sectors in the agricultural economy by allowing dairy, fruit, and berry companies to avoid investment in labor-saving, productivity-boosting machinery.

The amnesty legislation will likely be welcomed by progressives even though it will cut the marketplace wages for Americans and for H-2A farmworkers and will also reduce the economic incentives for investing in new labor-saving machinery or techniques, such as vertical farms.

But the amnesty side of the bill would help Democrats by creating a new immigration path for at least 150,000 workers and their families each year. The new inflow will add to the current inflow of 1.1 million legal immigrants who help suppress wages and raise real-estate prices, and it will help turn more GOP-held districts in Democratic blue.

The lead GOP legislator backing the bill is Washington state Rep. Dan Newhouse, who owns fruit orchards in Washington state. The bill is likely to be backed by a small number of GOP legislators from dairy districts. The farmers in their districts want cheap migrant labor because milk prices are low, robotic cow-milkers are expensive, and the cost of migrant labor is rising in President Donald Trump’s “Hire American” economy.

The bill mandates the use of the “E-Verify” program to exclude illegal aliens from the agriculture sector. That mandate gives legislators a talking point to be used against voters who oppose the amnesty. But Section 303 of the bill effectively kills the existing E-Verify program before the promised rollout of a to-be-designed replacement program.

The bill does not include any compensation for Americans who will face lower wages — and receive less workplace investment in machines — once the agriculture industry can import a replacement army of lower-wage labor.

The bill does not include subsidies for the robots or other labor-saving technology that could reduce the incentives for farm companies to hire many illegal aliens or H-2A visa workers.

The farmworker bill mimics Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee’s “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants” legislation. Lee’s bill has already been passed by the House as H.R.1044, and it offers a green card subsidy to an industry that uses cheap imported labor to bypass American graduates. Lee’s S.385 legislation, however, has been stopped in the Senate by Sen. Dick Durbin, who wants a bigger increase in immigration.

Many American farms still rely on stoop labor, long after the industrial revolution of the 1800s.

The U.S. farmers’ reliance on cheap labor has reduced their incentive for the use of machines, while farm companies in many other countries are increasing their competitive advantage by investing in machines:

So far, the White House has shown little interest in the amnesty bill, partly because it does not want to trade away unpopular concessions before a major workforce deal in 2021. The McClatchy news service reported October 28:

Last week, Theo Wold, a special assistant to President Donald Trump for domestic policy, came to Capitol Hill to meet with members and senior aides involved in negotiations.

Wold is an ally of Jared Kushner, a senior adviser and son-in-law to Trump who has tried to be a bipartisan dealmaker on immigration overhaul legislation in the past.

Congressional sources familiar with the meeting said they saw Wold’s participation as a positive sign there could be some openness to support for the bill within the White House — or at least no active effort to try and thwart it.

A senior administration official confirmed Wold’s attendance but said the White House is unlikely to back the legislation.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is opposing the bill. “The name of this mass amnesty bill name should be changed to the Mandatory Farm Labor Act of 2019,” FAIR said.

Farm groups are welcoming the subsidy of cheap labor:

The bill is backed by companies in the fruit and berry business:

Apple harvesters rely on migrants to pick the fruit by hand:

But several U.S. companies, such as Abundant Robots, are hoping to sell apple-picking robots to replace the workers:

Companies in high-wage countries have developed machines to harvest grapes, even as American grape growers lag behind:

 

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