Legislation Addresses Agricultural Labor Shortage

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There seems to be some bipartisan momentum for finally reforming our broken immigration system, and legislation introduced yesterday in the House to do that also could help address the agriculture industry’s labor shortage.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Reps. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., Wednesday offered a bill that would, among other things, increase border security; improve, modernize and expand ports of entry; and hire additional U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and officers. Importantly for U.S. agriculture, the measure also includes Goodlatte’s “Agricultural Guestworker Act” (AG Act), which the Judiciary Committee approved late last year.

The AG Act would create a new visa program – H-2C – that allows non-seasonal agricultural workers to remain in the United States for up to three years while deferring a portion of their pay as incentive for “touchbacks” to their country. Workers would need to return to their homeland for one month for every year in America.

The bill would replace the current H-2A temporary, seasonal agricultural worker program, and it would let agricultural employers hire up to 410,000 foreign workers for on-farm jobs and 40,000 for meatpacking plants. It also would put the H-2C program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than the Labor Department.

Pork producers support practical and fair employment laws and a legal and productive work force for year-round animal care. Without access to an adequate labor supply, they’ve pointed out, production costs will increase, leading to higher food prices for consumers. In some cases, a shortage of labor could lead to facilities shutting down, causing severe financial harm for the pork industry and to rural communities. (Iowa pork producer John Weber recently weighed in on the foreign worker issue here.)

Here’s hoping lawmakers on Capitol Hill can reach common ground on what historically has been a very divisive issue.

By Dustin Baker, NPPC Deputy Director, Economics & Domestic Production Issues