As we seek to reform our immigration system as a whole, we must take the time to look at each of the individual issues within this system to ensure that we get immigration reform right. For this reason, I thank the Subcommittee Chairman for holding this important hearing. H.R. 1773 is a bill that will replace our outdated and unworkable agricultural guestworker program and bring us one step closer to solving the larger immigration puzzle.
As past hearings on the H-2A program have revealed, farmers avoid using the existing agricultural guestworker program because it burdens them with excessive regulations and exposes them to frivolous litigation. The new guestworker program created under the AG Act, known as the H-2C program, remedies this problem by streamlining access to a reliable workforce and protecting farmers from abusive lawsuits. It also allows dairy farms and food processors to participate in the program.
The new H-2C program will be market-driven and adaptable. It will reduce bureaucratic red tape by adopting an attestation-based petition process and by allowing H-2C employers in good standing who agree to abide by additional terms and conditions the opportunity to be designated as "registered agricultural employers," further expediting the hiring process. Moreover, subject to certain conditions, H-2C workers can be employed under contract or at will, making it easier for workers to move freely throughout the agricultural marketplace to meet demands.
We must also learn from the mistakes of the past. As a result, the following pitfalls of the H-2A program will not be repeated in the new H-2C program:
The AG Act will not require growers to hire and train unneeded workers after the work period begins;
The AG Act will not require employers to provide free housing and transportation for their workers; and
Farmers will pay guestworkers the typical wage paid to agricultural employees in their locality, not an "adverse effect" wage dreamed up by labor department bureaucrats.
However, the new H-2C program will be at its core a guestworker program. Unlike the agricultural worker provisions in the Senate immigration bill, the AG Act does not create any special pathway to citizenship for unlawful immigrants. The bill simply allows unlawful immigrants to participate in the new H-2C guestworker program just as other foreign nationals can, provided a job is available. They are required to abide by the exact same conditions as foreign agricultural workers currently working legally in the United States, including the requirement to leave the U.S. periodically and the prohibition on family members accompanying the worker.
Under the AG Act, H-2C workers can be admitted for up to 18 months to work in a job that is temporary or seasonal. For work that is not temporary, H-2C workers can be admitted initially for up to 36 months and up to 18 months on subsequent H-2C visas. At the end of the authorized work period, an H-2C worker must remain outside the U.S. for a continuous period that is equal to at least 1/6 of the duration of the worker's previous stay as an H-2C worker or 3 months, whichever is less.
These requirements will be strictly enforced. To encourage guestworkers to abide by these rules, a small portion of guestworkers' wages will be held in escrow until they return home to collect the wages in their home countries. And if a guestworker abandons his or her job, an employer will be required to notify the department of homeland security within 24 hours. Workers who do not leave the U.S. when required will be barred from reentry into the U.S. for from three to ten years.
As a general rule, the program will be limited to 500,000 visas per year, although individuals working in the U.S. unlawfully who transition into the H-2C program will not count against this cap.
Finally, the H-2C program is fiscally responsible. H-2C guestworkers will not be eligible for Obamacare subsidies or for most other federal public benefits. They are also not eligible for federal refundable tax credits -- the earned income tax credit or the child tax credit.
It is essential that we examine solutions to our broken immigration system methodically, for if we fail to do so, we risk repeating some of the same mistakes of the past. I am pleased to welcome all of our witnesses here today, and I look forward hearing their valuable testimony.