Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing on Farmworker Amnesty

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing titled “Immigrant Farmworkers are Essential to Feeding America.” The hearing largely focused on the FAIR-opposed Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill that would amnesty approximately 1.5 million illegal aliens and greatly expand the already-unlimited H-2A agricultural guestworker program.

In March, the House of Representatives passed their version of the bill by a vote of 247-174, with 30 Republicans joining all but a single Democrat. While no senator has formally introduced the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in the upper chamber, the idea of placing illegal alien farmworkers on a pathway to citizenship gained new steam with reports that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) plan to include illegal farmworkers in their budget reconciliation amnesty.

Predictably, Democrats on the committee emphasized the need to quickly amnesty illegal immigrant farmworkers. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), who co-led the hearing, argued in his opening statement that:

Farm workers, regardless of immigration status, are critical to our nation. Critical to the food supply. It is fundamentally wrong for the United States government to recognize workers, deem workers essential – yet deny them legal protections and status. As the proud son of immigrants I know that immigrants have always been essential, long before the pandemic.

Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) echoed this sentiment, stating simply that “When we debate legislation like the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, we’re really debating the future of America, and particularly rural America. Let’s invest in that future.”

What Senator Durbin fails to consider is that investing in the future of rural America – and in our food supply – may not be as simple as doling out a massive amnesty to illegal alien farmworkers. That kind of effort would require the actual modernization of our agriculture by investing in labor-saving automation technologies. This kind of innovation already exists in most farming in the U.S. already, and reduces the need for labor while increasing crop yields and harvesting efficiency for American farmers.

The Republican ranking member, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), comes from a state with enormous agricultural interests and knows this debate all too well. Yet he struck a different chord than his Democratic colleagues. In his opening remarks, Grassley first noted that the committee held this hearing in the midst of a raging border crisis caused by the deliberate policy decisions of the Biden administration. On the issue of agricultural farm labor, he argued:

It is important that any agricultural labor reform, and immigration reform more broadly, include a robust and mandatory E-Verify component. Agricultural labor reform should not include a mass amnesty of current illegal immigrant farm workers. We should learn from the mistakes of the past or we are doomed to repeat them… On top of being bad policy, a mass amnesty of current farm workers also does absolutely nothing to address agricultural labor shortages and workforce issues. As we saw in the aftermath of the 1986 amnesty bill, the vast majority of agricultural workers who received legal status ultimately left the agricultural sector.

On this point, Senator Grassley is spot-on. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) provided an amnesty for millions of illegal aliens who largely worked in agriculture. Subsequent studies proved not only that the bill neither reformed nor controlled future illegal immigration. The problem – and numerical size – of illegal immigration has only grown since that time.

Simply put, former illegal aliens do not continue working in agriculture after legalization. They leave the farms, and subsequently farmers find themselves back to square one with their labor issues, leading them to hire more illegal aliens. The process simply repeats itself. This is why any modern approach to agricultural labor cannot rely on a framework developed 35 years ago – it has to incorporate modern, 21st century solutions.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act addresses the symptoms of the problem without cutting deeper to the root of the issue. This is where mechanized automation technology comes into play. As one immigration scholar suggested, why not provide loan guarantees for this technology “to help small farmers wean themselves off stoop labor?” Instead of relying on medieval agricultural practices, why not help American farmers leap into the 21st century with reliable technology that already exists?

As a standalone package, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act will likely go nowhere. But as I mentioned earlier, its components will undoubtedly be a part of the Senate Democrats’ “infrastructure” package they plan to move through the budget reconciliation process in Autumn. This hearing merely sets the stage for the assertion by Senate Democrats that illegal alien farmworkers are as deserving of an amnesty as “Dreamers” or Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders.

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