As one of the most ardent immigration reform supporters in the House, Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GA) has built a reputation for his efforts to secure the border and enforce the nation's immigration laws. Having worked in agribusiness insurance before his election and now serving as Chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, he has also remained a close ally of Georgia's farmers.
Today, Kingston brought those two realms together by introducing legislation that would fundamentally reform the H2A guest worker program by which farmers and ranchers are matched with seasonal agricultural laborers. The BARN Act overhauls what Kingston says is a broken system and replaces overly-burdensome regulations with those that make it easier for farmers and ranchers to abide by the law.
"The federal government has failed America's farmers," said Kingston. "It has made the process so cumbersome that those who want to abide by the law are unable to do so. Even when a farmer successfully navigates the bureaucracy, another line waits for them with outrageous requirements. In many cases, enforcement officials are working against producers rather than working with them to ensure compliance.
"This legislation implements common sense reforms and abolishes well-intentioned but practically unworkable regulations. It was developed through grassroots interaction with those involved in the current system. If enacted, it would allow farmers to secure legal, qualified labor through an accountable system and continue producing the safest, most abundant food supply in the world."
Kingston's bill, which has been cosponsored by Congressman Lynn A. Westmoreland (R-GA), would:
* shift a portion of regulatory responsibility for the H2A program from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture;
* expand the definition of agricultural worker to include the dairy and ranching industries;
* allow farmers to attach an experience requirement to job postings to allow farmers to be matched with more qualified workers;
* remove requirement for farmers to hire domestic workers during a contract period when there is no existing need for additional workers;
* establish a fair, new farm wage methodology, setting a wage minimum at 115% of whichever is higher of federal, state or local minimum wage;
* allow employers to apply for H-2A workers 30 days in advance of need, reducing it from the current 45 day requirement to give farmers more flexibility in managing their labor supplies and expedites the Department of Labor's review process;
* make H-2A visas a one year visa which may be renewed once before the worker is required to return to their home country, between renewals an employer must re-test the domestic labor market as if the worker was a first-time applicant;
* shift existing housing requirements to a voucher system, allowing the option of using existing housing rather than requiring farmers build permanent worker housing;
* establish reasonable reforms on the Legal Services Corporation; and
o prohibits legal activism unless the alien is present
o prohibits bringing civil action unless the counterparties have attempted mediation
o prohibits entering H-2A employer property without pre-arranged appointments
o requires respect of existing arbitration process and outcome if employer and employee have an existing arbitration arrangement
* place new restrictions on H-2A participants.
o makes worker who overstays his or her H-2A visa ineligible to reapply for 5 years
o makes any applicant who commits fraudulent activity in connection with obtaining an H-2A visa permanently ineligible
o makes any worker found committing a deportable offense while in the U.S. permanently ineligible
o makes any employer who knowingly hires a worker with an expired H-2A visa or who knowingly facilitates fraudulent activity in connection with the H-2A process permanently ineligible from participation in the H-2A program and other work visa programs
Kingston's bill has been referred to the Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on the Judiciary for further consideration.