The Rotten Fruits of America’s ‘Farm Workforce Modernization Act’

Conventional wisdom holds that bipartisan legislation is the best form of law. The “Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019” is a notable exception.

With 49 Republican and Democrat co-sponsors, HR 5038 sailed through the House Judiciary Committee last week. Because the bill was allowed to advance on a voice vote, there’s no official record of who voted which way.

Lawmakers had good reason to duck for cover while cheap-labor lobbyists and immigration enthusiasts exulted. Expanding the H-2A foreign guestworker program, HR 5038 would grant amnesty and a path to citizenship to more than 1 million illegal farm laborers. And contrary to its title, the bill doesn’t do a thing to “modernize” agriculture in this country.

Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican who represents rural northeast Georgia, unearthed a few of the landmines in the 224-page bill, which he said:

  • Promotes fraudulent amnesty applications through low documentation standards.
  • Allows aliens with multiple DUI arrests and convictions to get amnesty, and forgives cases of Social Security fraud.

  • Defines a “work day” as only 5.75 hours for purposes of eligibility and requires just 100 hours annually to gain a path to citizenship.
  • Awards amnesty to individuals who failed to turn up for any of their removal proceedings, as well as those who were deported and illegally re-entered the U.S.
  • Earmarks tax dollars and up to $10 million in fees paid by legal naturalization applicants to fund the amnesty program. (Amnesty-seeking farm aliens would not be required to pay back taxes.)

In other words, HR 5038 replicates the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) amnesty that was appended to the larger 1986 amnesty for illegal aliens. In a 30th anniversary retrospective, The Atlantic, aptly summed up the SAW amnesty. “Congress included in the bill a special amnesty for illegal immigrants who could prove that they had done farm work in the United States during the previous year. It did not demand much proof. [The program] was expected to grant legal status to 350,000 illegal immigrants. Instead more than 1.3 million illegal immigrants–a number roughly equivalent at the time to a sixth of the adult male population of rural Mexico–applied for this amnesty, most of them using phony documents in what has been called one of the greatest immigration frauds in American history.”

FAIR opposes HR 5038, the modern-day sequel to the SAW amnesty, on several additional counts, including the misnamed bill’s failure to “modernize” America’s agricultural sector. “Encouraging adoption of labor- and cost-saving automated harvesting technologies represents true modernization. Another senseless amnesty does not,” FAIR observed.

In essence, the bill tells illegal farm laborers: Work in unchanging conditions with no wage growth for around a decade and maybe you’ll get a green card.

Instead of doling out more favors and promises to the ag industry and its indentured class, lawmakers ought to be asking what are farmers doing wrong? Virtually every other sector of the economy manages to engage workers at market wages and turn a profit without price supports, market manipulation, import barriers, government-funded insurance … or amnesty deals.

While illegal aliens account for 47 percent of U.S. farm workers, agriculture employs less than 1 percent of America’s labor force. Clearly, no one is going to starve if the industry’s illegal-alien spigot is turned off and immigration laws are enforced. We doubt anyone would even notice a difference on their grocery bill.

This counterproductive amnesty scheme has nothing to do with “farm workforce modernization” (in fact, it produces the opposite), and America doesn’t need HR 5038. It’s time Congress raised a bipartisan majority to reverse course and stop this cheap-labor combine.

About Author


Bob Dane, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)'s Executive Director, has been with FAIR since 2006. His deep belief is that immigration is the most transformational determinant of where we are heading as a nation and that our policies must be reformed in the public interest. Over many years on thousands of radio, TV and print interviews, Bob has made the case that unless immigration is regulated and sensibly reduced, it will be difficult for America to reduce unemployment, increase wages, improve health care and education and heighten national security. Prior to joining FAIR, Bob spent twenty years in network radio, marketing and communications after an earlier career in policy and budgeting within the Reagan Administration. Bob has a degree from George Mason University in Public Administration and Management.

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