Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) Tuesday introduced the H-2A Improvement Act, legislation to ensure that dairy farmers in Vermont, New York and other dairy states can use a visa program long used by other sectors of the agriculture industry to hire foreign workers. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is also a cosponsor of the bill.
The U.S. Department of Labor struck a blow to the dairy industry earlier this year when it issued rules that continued to exclude the dairy industry from the agricultural worker program, commonly referred to as the H-2A visa program. In the rule issued on February 11, the Labor Department stated that it has "no legal authority" to include the entire dairy industry in the H-2A visa program, which allows farmers to hire foreign workers when needed to keep U.S. farms open and producing.
The H-2A Improvement Act will authorize dairy workers, sheep herders and goat herders to remain in the U.S. for an initial period of three years, and gives the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services the authority to approve a worker for an additional three-year period. After the first three-year period, the worker may petition to become a lawful permanent resident. Leahy also has included a similar dairy provision in the AgJOBS Bill, whose chief sponsor is Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Leahy said, "For dairy farmers in Vermont and New York, labor shortages are a key ingredient of these tough economic times. These shortages could be met with foreign agricultural workers under the H-2A visa program, but the Labor Department has consistently refused to interpret the law to give dairy farmers the same access to seasonal foreign workers granted to some other agricultural sectors. The H-2A Improvement Act will finally end this inequity in a way tailored to the specific needs of dairy farming."
Leahy continued, "I want to make absolutely clear that I remain in complete support of the more comprehensive AgJOBS legislation. I will continue to strongly support that legislation. The solution that the AgJOBS Bill proposes will benefit agriculture across the nation, and it is a solution I remain committed to making a reality. But it is crucial, even under our current laws, that the dairy industry be treated equally by having basic access to this visa program."
Gillibrand said, "Low milk prices combined with rising costs of production and severe labor shortage have been devastating for dairy farmers across New York. Compounding these challenges, dairy farmers lack access to H-2A visas under current regulations. This legislation would provide dairy farmers access to visas for workers, helping them during these difficult times. I remain a strong supporter of the AgJOBS Bill and of Comprehensive Immigration Reform."
Gillibrand is the first New York senator in nearly 40 years to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Leahy chairs the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration policy, and he also is the most senior member of the Agriculture Committee.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Albee said, "The legislation that Senator Leahy introduced today is important and very much needed. It will extend the same options for dairy guest workers that are currently provided to goat and sheep herders working in the United States. Guest workers are an extremely important part of our workforce in agriculture, especially on dairy farms. These individuals fill a void needed for farm labor, whether on dairy farms or apple orchards. Senator Leahy's bill addresses these issues so important to producers in Vermont and across the country."
In 2006 and 2007 Leahy authored and included legislation to fix the H-2A dairy exemption in the Senate's comprehensive immigration bills to alleviate the inequity caused by the Department of Labor's interpretation of law. He is a leading cosponsor of the AgJOBS Bill introduced by Feinstein, which offers a comprehensive overhaul of the H-2A visa program and which includes Leahy's provision to fix the dairy exemption. Feinstein and Leahy reintroduced the AgJOBS Bill last year. A House panel last week held a hearing on the AgJOBS proposal, featuring testimony by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, who had spent time working side-by-side with farm workers as a gesture of solidarity in support of the AgJOBS Bill.
Leahy has long led efforts to include dairy workers in the H-2A visa program. Last October he submitted comments to the Department of Labor in its rulemaking process for this rule, urging the Department to make full use of its authority and extend H-2A visas to dairy workers. He was critical of the Labor Department's refusal to provide the dairy industry with access to the H-2A program because of its year-round needs, though the agency granted new access to the H-2A program to the logging industry and continues to offer access to the year-round sheepherding industry.