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Senate Appropriations Committee Approves Feinstein and Craig Emergency Legislation to Relieve Labor Shortage in Agriculture

- Amendment would help to solve the labor shortages facing farmers-

Washington, DC – The Senate Appropriations Committee today on a bipartisan basis approved legislation sponsored by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho) that would provide emergency relief to the nation’s current agriculture labor shortage.

The legislation was offered as an amendment to the Iraq supplemental spending bill.

The Emergency Agriculture Relief Act does not provide a path to citizenship or a green card. However, it would grant temporary, limited immigration status for experienced farm workers who would be required to continue to work in American agriculture for the next five years.

This legislation is designed to address the perennial shortage of agriculture workers. These shortages have caused fruit to rot on trees and farming operations to move to Mexico.

“This amendment provides a consistent, stable workforce for an industry that depends almost exclusively on undocumented labor - agriculture. And it provides temporary status for those who have worked in agriculture and who will continue to work in agriculture for a number of years,” Senator Feinstein said at the Committee Markup today.

“This amendment is cosponsored by Senator Craig, as well as other members of this Committee and the Senate.

This amendment has been negotiated with growers and farm workers.   It is supported by the American Farm Bureau, the United Farm Workers, and dozens of organizations across the nation. Virtually every farm organization in the United States is in support of this legislation.

We need this legislation because in the last year, 13,280 farms in the United States have shut down and others have moved their operation to Mexico.  In fact, U.S. farmers operate at least 84,000 acres in Mexico.  It is estimated that the United States will lose $5 billion to $9 billion to foreign competition.

This is not amnesty.  It is an emergency agricultural worker bill, which will give protected status to those workers who have worked in agriculture within the last 48 months. They must work at least 100 days a year in agriculture for the next five years, and it includes a five-year sunset.   This bill also reforms and streamlines the H-2A program.  

Agriculture needs a consistent workforce. Without it, they can’t plant, they can’t prune, they can’t pick, and they can’t pack. And the time has come for Congress to step up to the plate.   

I have tried along with Senator Craig, Senator Hagel and others who are cosponsors to find a way to pass this bill. For more than a year, I have tried to move this bill, and we have not been able to find a vehicle.

So this is an emergency situation. I believe it’s appropriate to put it on this bill, and I would hope that this committee would agree to this legislation.”

“We are continuing to tighten our border security, but at a time of accelerating food prices, we cannot deny consumers the abundance of American agriculture’s effort, for lack of a labor force,” Craig told the Committee.  “Oranges are rotting on trees in Florida, and our crops are being moved and grown south of the border.  If we want food security and food safety, we should be providing as much food as we can here, and we can’t do that with our current labor force.”

Consider some of these stories: 

  • Keith Eckel, of Clarks Summit, Pa. was one of the largest tomato growers in the Northeast. For seven weeks a year, 120 workers would pick, pack and ship 125 trailer loads of tomatoes. But earlier this month, after decades of growing tomatoes, he announced he was calling it quits. State, local and federal crackdowns on illegal immigration have broken his supply chain of laborers and he feared that the labor he needs to harvest his tomatoes won’t be there when he needs it.  
  • In 2001, Lee Zimmerman hired a Mexican immigrant to work on his dairy farm in Tower, N.D. Describing the Mexican immigrants as “the only dependable source of labor” his dairy was soon milking 700 cows three times a day. But last April, Zimmerman’s farm was raided by federal agents, resulting in the arrest of 13 workers on his 21-person staff. For the first few days after the raid, the dairy’s remaining workers barely slept as they tried to milk 700 cows just once a day. The delays in milking led to health problems that in turn lowered the quality of the milk. The raid also hit at the height of the breeding season: 300 calves went hours without milk and about 30 of them died. 
  • Steve Scaroni couldn’t find enough workers to work at his lettuce processing plant in California. So he moved the plant to Guanajuato, Mexico to get the labor force that he needed. He now has 2,000 acres in Mexico and 500 employees. He exports to the United States about 2 million pounds of lettuce a week.

If enacted, this bill would take a major step forward in helping to address a severe shortage in the number of agriculture workers across the country needed to pick crops.                    

Senator Feinstein had been a longtime proponent of AgJOBS, which would have provided temporary legal resident status for agriculture workers and their families and provided workers with an eventual citizenship. AgJOBS was included in the comprehensive immigration bill, which failed last year.  

This new emergency legislation has been negotiated with and is supported by laborers and growers and represents the best chance to address the labor shortages this year.  

Summary of the Emergency Agriculture Relief Act 

Temporary Limited Immigration Status for Agriculture and Horse Workers

  • Temporary Emergency Agricultural program capped at 1.35 million workers
  • Requires that emergency agricultural workers who have worked in agriculture to work at least 100 days per year in agriculture for the next five years
  • Requires that workers pay a $250 fine plus processing fees
  • Includes a five year sunset 

H-2A Program Modifications

  • No cap on H-2A visas
  • Application process is more streamlined to allow employer’s request for H-2A workers to more quickly obtain government approval 
  • Freezes wages at the 2007 level for three years while a new fair wage standard is studied
  • Changes the H-2A program’s housing requirement so that an employer can provide a housing allowance if there is adequate rental housing available
  • Changes the H-2A program’s transportation subsidy so that employers no longer have to pay for trips of less than 100 miles or for transportation costs if housing is not provided
  • Includes a five-year sunset