For the first time in decades, Congress has an opportunity to overhaul the nation’s immigration system to prioritize national security and economic interests. However, after failed attempts in the Senate, the opportunity for success now rests in the House of Representatives’ H.R. 4760, in the form of the Securing America’s Future Act, led by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). The bill tackles well-known issues such as chain migration, the visa lottery, border wall construction, sanctuary cities, and even DACA. But it is a lesser known section that has caused the most heartburn for Republicans trying to advance the legislation: an agricultural guest worker program.
For years, the American agriculture industry has condemned the current H-2A program for temporary agricultural workers as being overly burdensome. A farmer in Illinois claimed that while the H-2A program is “laden with bureaucratic inefficiency,” it is also the only way to get the workers needed. Enter Goodlatte’s proposed replacement: the H-2C program.
Initially, the agricultural community pushed back against the H-2C provisions fearing they would be no better than the program they would replace. So, Goodlatte reworked the bill to ease farmer’s concerns. Under the revised language, farmers could obtain H-2C pre-approval for workers currently on agricultural visas before they leave the U.S., allowing farmers to plan for the next growing season. Additionally, to ensure enough workers, the visa would last for twenty-four months, versus the original eighteen. Finally, the revisions give employers two years to begin using the E-Verify system.
Following these adjustments, the American Farm Bureau offered its support. “Chairman Goodlatte’s [legislation]would establish a new H-2C agriculture worker program that is far superior to the existing H-2A program. The new H-2C program offers a much brighter future for agriculture,” the organization said in a statement.
Nonetheless, not all agricultural groups are on board. In fact, the California Farm Bureau argues that the bill could actually worsen employee shortages because it does not address the status of current illegal agricultural workers— a position unlikely to garner support from most Republicans.
For Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the rift between agriculture groups is more painful than for his colleagues. McCarthy’s district is the fourth largest agricultural producing county in the country. However, as the number two Republican in the House, he has a responsibility not only to his district, but also to his party.
It is not the first time that Congress’ responsibility to protect the American people has conflicted with the interests of influential business groups. But who knows when there will be another opportunity to crack down on sanctuary cities or truly the secure the border? As Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) noted in January, the American people are watching Congress’ actions closely. McCarthy “has a future that he needs to think about,” said Labrador. “He needs to decide whether he will stand with the American people or not” on immigration.