By Derrick Cain
"This represents a delicate political balance but we have a responsibility to enact smart policy and we also have a rare opportunity to replace the cumbersome and largely unworkable H2-A program with something that will address the needs of those in agriculture all across the country, while ensuring that no American workers are displaced," Chambliss said.
The legislation, which could get a vote on final passage Thursday, would include a new "blue card" program for experienced farm workers, and a new version of the current agricultural worker visa program.
Under the proposal, undocumented farmers would be eligible to obtain legal status through the blue card program.
Agricultural workers who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 work days in two years would be eligible for the new program.
Then, farm workers who fulfill blue card work requirements, pay all their taxes, have not been convicted of any felony or violent misdemeanor, and pay a $400 fee would be eligible for the current green card. Those work requirements include performing at least 5 years of agricultural employment for at least 100 work days per year, or performing at least 3 years of agricultural employment for at least 150 work days per year.
"Because of the way the blue card program is set up, I'm afraid we're providing too strong an incentive for people who did very minimal or even no work in agriculture to access the program, and that we'll end up with more ag workers than we need," Chambliss said. "Then because the work requirements are so low, once folks get the blue card, they'll perform the minimal amount of work required and move on to a different job."
Chambliss said he wanted to offer an amendment to tighten the blue card requirements. It would require the undocumented worker to provide proof of work in a "face-to-face" meeting with appropriate agency officials.
Another amendment Chambliss hoped to offer would increase the work requirements to at least five years of 180 work days per year in order to qualify for the green card.
"If you're going to be put on this preferential pathway to a green card, I think you ought to be able to work at least half the year in agriculture," Chambliss said. "I don't think that's too onerous."
Another Chambliss amendment would raise the blue card fee to $1,000.
"I understand that these agriculture workers don't have a lot of money However, I think the fines should be significant," Chambliss said.
Under the proposal, the new agricultural worker program would establish two work options: a portable, at-will employment-based visa and a contract-based visa program.
The H-2A program would sunset one year after the new visa program is enacted. The new program, administered by the USDA, would provide three-year visas.
Employers of workers under the program would have to register with the USDA as a designated agricultural employer.
Under the plan, workers who become unemployed for more than 60 consecutive days would lose their status and would have to depart from the United States.
The program would be capped at 112,333 visas per year for the first five years of enactment. After five years, the agriculture secretary would determine the cap on an annual basis based on established criterion.
The proposal would set wage rates for these occupation categories:
Farmworkers and laborers (Crop, Nursery, and Greenhouse) at $9.64/hour.
Graders and sorters at $9.84/hour.
Dairy and livestock at $11.37/hour.
Agriculture equipment operators at $11.87/hour.
Other categories to be determined by the agriculture secretary.
Each base wage would increase annually by at least 1.5 percent, but no more than 2.5 percent as established by the employment cost index.
Chambliss said he wanted to offer an amendment that would collapse the proposed wage rates into two categories - a skilled wage and an unskilled wage.
"And to get those numbers, I simply average the wage data that the "Gang of Eight' proposed in the underlying bill and used the same job categories that the gang proposed in the bill," Chambliss said. "My aim is to prevent an employer from having to determine how many hours a guest worker spent in the field versus the packing shed each day as he would have to do under the current bill."
Another amendment Chambliss sought to offer would have extended the H-2A program for three years, rather than one year as proposed in the bill.
"While the H-2A program is far from perfect, it does allow employers who need legal workers to get them in a timely manner," Chambliss said. "Standing up a new program and moving it to a new agency and issuing new regulations to govern the program is a big undertaking."
Under the bill, all employers would be required to use the federal work verification program, E-Verify, over a five-year phase-in period. Employers with more than 5,000 employees would be phased in within two years, more than 500 employees would be phased in within three years, and all employers, including agricultural employers would be phased in within four years.
As part of the E-Verify system, every non-citizen would be required to show their "biometric work authorization card," or their "biometric green card."
Details of the proposed visa changes for farm workers can be viewed here.