By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- An overhaul of agricultural guest-worker programs is a major component of a House plan to fix the immigration status of young people involved in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) that is entangled in the latest immigration battle on Capitol Hill.
Conservatives in the House introduced a broad immigration bill on Wednesday that included much of the language proposed last fall by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., in his agricultural guest-worker bill.
Goodlatte and three other Republican congressmen introduced the "Securing America's Future Act" on Wednesday. The bill had several provisions ending green card lottery programs and claimed to reduce overall immigration levels by 25% a year, but at the same time would increase visas for skilled workers and for agricultural workers.
The bill also authorizes a southern border wall, would boost security at ports and would expand border patrol agents. In employment, it would require all employers to use the federal E-Verify system to run Social Security information on prospective employees.
The Agricultural Guestworker Act drafted by Goodlatte was essentially inserted into the new House immigration bill. That bill would scrap the current H-2A temporary ag worker program and replace it with a new program, dubbed H-2C, that would allow farmers and other employers to bring in 410,000 foreign workers for farm jobs as well as 40,000 foreign workers for meatpacking plants. Under the bill, the 450,000 visas would increase each year, meaning that within three years, the H-2C program could lead to 1.3 million foreign workers in farming and other related industries.
The 410,000 guest workers for farm labor are more than double the number of guest workers who came into the U.S. last year under the Department of Labor's H-2A program.
Unlike H-2A, the Agricultural Guestworker Act also would allow foreign workers who work in agricultural jobs to stay in the country for up to three years before requiring them to return home. This would provide more stable labor for farmers such as dairy producers who need workers year-round. The bill also would move the oversight of an agricultural guest-worker program from the Department of Labor to USDA.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, who has made agricultural labor issues a top priority, cited the Goodlatte Ag guest-worker bill in his speech last weekend. Duvall said he believed "we are closer to a solution than ever before."
Still, Paul Schlegel, deputy director for public policy at AFBF, told DTN that Farm Bureau still has some problems with Goodlatte's ag guest-worker bill. Those included the cap on the number of visas, as well as requiring current agricultural workers who may be in the U.S. now illegally to essentially go back to their home country and get in line to apply to return to the U.S.
"That's a problem because we have an existing skilled labor force that has been working for producers for a number of years," Schlegel said. "There are some good things in the bill and there are some things that are troublesome."
Yet, President Donald Trump also has strongly criticized the same type of expansion in foreign workers -- in skilled jobs or agriculture -- that the new House bill proposes.
A bigger problem facing the House bill is the internal division within the House. Democrats are unlikely to support any bill that focuses heavily on enforcement. Some Republicans also aren't going to support a bill that opens up the country to more guest workers as well. That was a problem Goodlatte's guest-worker bill faced last fall when it moved out of committee on a 17-16 vote.
Still, the focus in Congress and by the Trump administration initially was to address the 700,000 or so people who are affected by DACA, also often called "DREAMers." House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was optimistic about the new House bill in his weekly press conference on Thursday. Ryan said Goodlatte's bill "is a DACA solution. The Goodlatte bill brings peace of mind to the DACA kids."
"I think we will be able to put together a DACA compromise that has a majority of support from our party," Ryan said. "You have to remember -- I know I sound like a broken record -- A) We want to fix DACA. We do want to fix DACA. B) We want to fix it while addressing the root cause problems so that we don't have a DACA problem again. That's kind of common sense."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had a different take and panned the House leaders working on it as "five white guys." She said a more diverse group of leaders is needed to draft appropriate language in a bipartisan way. Pelosi also said DACA recipients need quick resolution. "They are losing protections every day, by the hundreds," Pelosi said.
And while that was going on in the House, Politico and other news outlets reported a bipartisan group of six senators -- Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. -- had come together on their own immigration and DACA solution, though details were thin Thursday on exactly what that solution entails. Yet, the Daily Caller quoted Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., an immigration hardliner, as calling the bipartisan proposal "a joke."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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