Farmers: Migrant workers needed

Riley Bunch | The Valdosta Daily TimesWorkers at Barrington Dairy in Montezuma prepare cows for milking. The large dairy operation relies on migrant workers through visa programs that provide workers with higher levels of education to come on as veterinarians or engineers, but struggles from a lack of workers for low-labor jobs such as milking.

ATANTA — While a bill reforming migrant worker programs passed in the U.S. House Wednesday, Georgia’s delegation voted along party lines — Republican members unanimously voting no.

The U.S. House bill, known as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, passed in a 260-165 vote Wednesday and is set to move to the U.S. Senate. In hand with H-2A program updates, the bill provides a path to permanent residency for undocumented farmworkers.

Georgia is the nation’s highest user of the H-2A guest worker program — a federal program that brings migrant workers from neighboring countries seasonally to work in U.S. agriculture. Farmers and producers have long called for upgrades to the program while farmworker advocates call for increased protections of workers.

Georgia Democratic representatives voted in favor of the farmworker bill and Georgia’s GOP representatives voted against it citing skepticism of the changes.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, now taking on the Democrat-led impeachment of President Donald Trump, said the H-2A program needs reform, but the bill that passed “doesn’t fix many of the issues with the program, and, in some cases, the bill makes the problems worse.”

Collins argued the bill doesn’t fulfill many requests by farmers and producers for stabilizing wages, uncapping the number of workers that can contracted and the measure leaves out agriculture sectors such as meat and poultry processing, forestry and aquaculture completely.

Dairy farmers have testified in front of Georgia lawmakers that the current H-2A program doesn’t allow year-long workers, leaving the dairy industry high and dry for cow milkers.

“The agricultural industry has asked that Congress provide access to the H-2A program for all sectors of agriculture,” Collins said. “H.R. 5038, however, covers the dairy industry, but leaves out other important sectors like meat and poultry processing, forestry and aquaculture. Of course, as someone who represents a district where the poultry industry employs over 16,000 people and is a vital part of our economy, the fact that meat and poultry processors are left out represents an enormous problem.”

Collins also strongly objected to the path for citizenship for undocumented workers — the main criticism of the bill by Republicans.

“One need look no further than the first few pages to figure out the real point of this bill: A path to citizenship for an unknown number of illegal immigrants who do some work in agriculture, along with their families,” he said.

During fiscal year 2019, the Peach State surpassed all others, with 12% of the total workforce coming out of the H-2A program, according to the federal Office of Foreign Labor Certification.

“We are blessed with a diverse, billion-dollar fresh fruit and vegetable industry in Georgia,” Gary Black, state department of agriculture commissioner told CNHI, “without any stable, reliable, legal workforce, all of that would be impossible.”

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott joined his GOP colleague in pushing back against the bill. In a statement to CNHI, Scott said producers who rely on seasonal labor need more flexibility while the country has an obvious need for immigration reform.

"I am disappointed that our Democrat colleagues insisted on pushing through a partisan bill that does not address the concerns of both workers and producers, which is why I ultimately could not vote for the legislation," Scott said in a statement. "There is a great opportunity for us to come together to make meaningful reforms to our immigration system that support American growers, and I will continue to press my colleagues to work with us in a bipartisan fashion to do so."

In a statement to CNHI, U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter — who voted against the bill — said the act that passed is not the right answer for the H-2A program’s flaws. Carter represents a Southeastern part of the state with a large agricultural community.

“First, the bill encourages hiring illegal immigrants in our country over workers who go through the proper channels in the H-2A program,” Carter said. “It makes a convoluted wage rate system even more complicated. Finally, the bill prioritizes Northeastern and Western growers over our growers in the Southeast. We need to reform the program, but this is not the way to do it.”

Carter said he has been working with the Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security on H-2A program reforms that “will fix this broken guest worker system.”

Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said on Thursday that hopefully there will be opportunity to improve the bill as it moves to the Senate.

Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott praised the passage — that did see some bipartisan support.

“Last night the House passed #HR5038, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019,” Scott wrote in a tweet. “Proud to support this bipartisan legislation to provide important labor protections for the hardworking men and women of America's agriculture industry.”

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