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Statement of Edward M. Kennedy on the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003

Location: Unknown


It's a privilege to join my colleagues in introducing the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act.

The treatment of immigrant farm workers, dating back to the Bracero program, represents a shameful chapter in our history.
The decades of exploitation these workers have endured continues to this day. I remember traveling to southern Texas in the mid-60s and hearing about the hardships and dangerous working conditions these workers endured.

Little has changed for many of these workers. Large numbers of men and women employed in agriculture today are indispensable workers who also happen to be undocumented. As a result, they are easily exploited by unscrupulous employers, who get away with paying them very low wages and forcing them to work in dangerous conditions. Inevitably, that means lower wages for legal farm workers.

We have been struggling for decades to find a solution for this emotional, heart-wrenching problem. This legislation - a historic and far-reaching agreement between the United Farm Workers of America and the representatives of agricultural industries - provides a common sense solution to this long-standing problem. It will provide farm workers and their families with dignity and justice and give agricultural industries with a legal workforce.

This legislation offers an agriculture policy grounded in reality, a policy that recognizes their contributions and respects and rewards their work. It will improve the wages and working conditions of all farm workers, and provide a way for foreign-born workers to become permanent residents.

Agriculture is a unique industry. Growers must have an immediate and reliable workforce at harvest time. Everyone is harmed when crops rot in the field because the workers are not available. With these changes, growers will have greater access to dependable, hard-working employees, and a workforce that is no longer subject to sudden immigration raids. Our bill provides reforms that will result in fairer wages and better working conditions for all agricultural workers, and I intend to do all I can to see that Congress enacts them.


Summary of Significant Provisions

Title I- Adjustment of Agricultural Workers to Temporary and Permanent Resident Status

Title I establishes a program whereby agricultural workers in the United States who lack authorized immigration status but who can demonstrate that they have worked 100 or more days in a 12 consecutive month period during the 18-month period ending on August 31, 2003 can apply for adjustment of status. Eligible applicants would be granted temporary resident status. If the farmworker performs at least 360 work days of agricultural employment during the six year period ending on August 31, 2009, including at least 240 work days during the first 3 years following adjustment, and at least 75 days of agricultural work during each of three 12-month periods in the six years following adjustment to temporary resident status, the farmworker may apply for permanent resident status.

During the period of temporary resident status the farmworker is employment authorized, and can travel abroad and reenter the United States. Workers adjusting to temporary resident status may work in non-agricultural occupations, as long as their agricultural work requirements are met. While in temporary resident status, workers may select their employers and may switch employers. During the period of temporary resident status, the farmworker's spouse and minor children who are residing in the United States may remain in the U.S., but are not employment authorized. The spouse and minor children may adjust to permanent resident status once the farmworker adjusts to permanent resident status. Unauthorized workers who do not apply or are not qualified for adjustment to temporary resident status are subject to removal.
Temporary residents under this program who do not fulfill the agricultural work requirement or are inadmissible under immigration law or commit a felony or 3 or more misdemeanors as temporary residents are denied adjustment to permanent resident status and are subject to removal. The adjustment program is funded through application fees.

Titles II and III-Reform of the H-2A Temporary and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program

This section modifies the existing H-2A temporary and seasonal foreign agricultural worker program. Employers desiring to employ H-2A foreign workers in seasonal jobs (10 months or less) will file an application and a job offer with the Secretary of Labor. If the application and job offer meets the requirements of the program and there are no obvious deficiencies the Secretary must approve the application. Employers must seek to employ qualified U.S. workers prior to the arrival of H-2A foreign workers by filing a job order with a local job service office at least 28 days prior to date of need and also authorizing the posting of the job on an electronic job registry.

All workers in job opportunities covered by an H-2A application must be provided with workers' compensation insurance, and no job may be filled by an H-2A worker that is vacant because the previous occupant is on strike or involved in a labor dispute. If the job is covered by a collective bargaining agreement, the employer must also notify the bargaining agent of the filing of the application. If the job opportunity is not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, the employer is required to provide additional benefits, as follows. The employer must provide housing at no cost, or a monetary housing allowance where the Governor of a State has determined that there is sufficient migrant housing available, to workers whose place of residence is beyond normal commuting distance. The employer must also reimburse inbound and return transportation costs to workers who meet employment requirements and who travel more than 100 miles to come to work for the employer. The employer must also guarantee employment for at least three quarters of the period of employment, and assure at least the highest of the applicable statutory minimum wage, the prevailing wage in the occupation and area of intended employment, or a reformed Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). If the AEWR applies, it will not be higher than that existing on 1/01/03 and if Congress fails to enact a new wage rate within 3 years, the AEWR will be indexed to the change in the consumer price index, capped at 4% per year beginning December 1, 2006. Employers must meet specific motor vehicle safety standards.

H-2A foreign workers are admitted for the duration of the initial job, not to exceed 10 months, and may extend their stay if recruited for additional seasonal jobs, to a maximum continuous stay of 3 years, after which the H-2A foreign worker must depart the United States. H-2A foreign workers are authorized to be employed only in the job opportunity and by the employer for which they were admitted. Workers who abandon their employment or are terminated for cause must be reported by the employer, and are subject to removal. H-2A foreign workers are provided with a counterfeit resistant identity and employment authorization document.

The Secretary of Labor is required to provide a process for filing, investigating and disposing of complaints, and may order back wages and civil money penalties for program violators. The Secretary of Homeland Security may order debarment of violators for up to 2 years. H2A workers are provided with a limited federal private right of action to enforce the requirements of housing, transportation, wages, the employment guarantee, motor vehicle safety, retaliation and any other written promises in the employer's job offer. Either party may request mediation after the filing of the complaint. State contract claims seeking to enforce terms of the H-2A program are preempted by the limited federal right of action. No other state law rights are preempted or restricted.

The administration of the H-2A program is funded through a user fee paid by agricultural employers.

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