WASHINGTON – Last December, before COVID-19 upended Americans’ lives, the House of Representatives accomplished something that had long eluded lawmakers, passing an immigration reform bill with significant support from both Democrats and Republicans that could give legal status to hundreds of thousands of unauthorized farm workers.
As the pandemic has devastated communities across the country, it has hit agricultural workers especially hard, exposing the vulnerability of a critical part of the U.S. economy and the largely undocumented workforce the nation relies on for its food supply.
In an interview with The Spokesman-Review, Rep. Dan Newhouse said the crisis has made the bill he spearheaded – which would also overhaul a guest worker program and require employers to check workers’ legal status in a national database – more important than ever. But those same exceptional circumstances make an already daunting legislative challenge even more difficult, according to immigration policy experts and the labor union that helped craft the bill.
“In the state of Washington, we’ve got a multibillion-dollar agricultural industry,” Newhouse, a Yakima Republican, said. “And we’ve been put in a very precarious position by depending on a workforce that, largely, is here illegally.”
Newhouse is a third-generation farmer and still operates an 850-acre farm near Sunnyside, where he said he employs 100 to 150 workers during the harvest.
About half of U.S. agricultural workers are unauthorized, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Newhouse’s bill, which he championed along with California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, would allow some 325,000 people to earn legal status by working in agriculture for at least 10 years. That’s just a fraction of the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, but if enacted it would be the first major reform to the agriculture workforce since 1986.
Since Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law that year, granting legal status to some 2.7 million people, immigration has become an increasingly partisan issue in Congress. While most of Newhouse’s fellow Republicans opposed his bill, 34 – notably from agricultural districts – voted for it, including all five GOP representatives from Washington and Idaho.
U.S. agriculture has relied on migrant workers for decades, especially since the bracero program, an agreement struck between the U.S. and Mexico during World War II, brought millions of Mexican laborers to American farms starting in 1942. The program was ended in 1964, and a year later Congress passed a landmark immigration reform bill that eliminated the national quota system that had limited the number of immigrants from Mexico.
Yet while demand for workers remained, Congress didn’t expand legal channels for them to come to the U.S. The combination of these factors was “the seed of illegal immigration” to the U.S., said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Immigration from Mexico slowed after the 2008 economic crisis, and in recent years farmers have increasingly relied on the H-2A visa program, which lets foreign workers stay in the U.S. for up to 10 months. The number of H-2A visas issued in Washington grew by more than 300 percent from 2010 to 2015. But Kate Tynan, senior vice president at the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents fruit growers, said the program’s wage structure has driven labor costs “artificially high.”
“Our workforce is aging and fewer workers are entering the field to take their place. This has left the H-2A program as the only option for many tree fruit growers to get the workers they need to grow and harvest their crops,” Tynan said. “We have already seen a number of growers go out of business in recent years due to these wage pressures. Our growers simply cannot wait any longer for reform.”
In March, Rep. Kim Schrier wrote to House appropriators to request a $6 million increase in a federal grant program for states to support the H-2A program. The Sammamish Democrat noted the grant program was funded at a higher level a decade ago despite the number of H-2A applications roughly doubling nationwide since 2010.
Washington state now accounts for more than 10% of the nation’s H-2A workforce yet receives less than 3% of grant funding for the program, Schrier wrote.
The House appropriations subcommittee agreed to the funding increase July 13 and called for a report that could result in more funds directed to Washington state. Yet employers complain of delays in the H-2A hiring process and the need to hire lawyers to navigate it, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, an industry lobbying group.
“Employers have generally concluded that the H-2A program is too burdensome,” Chishti said. “And if there’s a supply of unauthorized workers, why use the H-2A program?”
Newhouse’s bill would rework the current H-2A rate-setting system, paying workers different wages based on their roles and limiting wage fluctuations. It also aims to streamline the visa program and cut processing times.
The legislation would also mandate the use of E-Verify, a government system for checking workers’ legal status. Employers and immigrant advocates have largely resisted efforts to make the system mandatory, citing frequent errors and the U.S. economy’s de facto reliance on unauthorized workers. The bill would guarantee due process for workers who are wrongly rejected by the system.
The bill met opposition from the right, including from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which wrote that it “would bless the actions of aliens and agricultural employers who have ignored the law.”
It has also drawn criticism from the left. Edgar Franks, political and campaign director at Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a Burlington-based farm workers union, said the legislation doesn’t do enough to protect workers in one of the most dangerous occupations. The union opposed what Franks called “a limited and complicated path to legal status,” calling instead for amnesty for all undocumented immigrants.
“I know there’s desperation to get something done for immigrants,” Franks said. “However, we feel that there is something better out there.”
But Erik Nicholson, national vice president at United Farm Workers, a larger union that helped craft the bill, said the urgency of the situation demanded a pragmatic approach.
“Being right is easy. Getting a bill passed in Congress is not,” Nicholson said. “We can have a righteous position and demand immediate legalization of all agricultural workers and stake that claim publicly, but it’s not going to change a darn thing in the lives of workers for the next decade.”
Nicholson described the difficulty of writing legislation that both parties could support, and that President Donald Trump could conceivably sign, as “multiple needles we’ve got to thread.”
Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said Congress’s failure to pass meaningful immigration reform is less about the divide between the parties than divides within each party, with both Democrats and Republicans afraid of being ousted in primary elections if they compromise.
“Both parties have elements within them that polarize the issue,” Kamarck said, “and as long as the issue is incredibly polarized, nothing is going to move. And of course the polarizer-in-chief is Donald Trump. As long as Trump’s around, nothing will happen.”
With the general election less than four months away, members of both parties are less inclined to reach across the aisle to get a bill passed. Democrats, who like their odds of winning the White House and maybe even control of the Senate, may want to hold out for more favorable political winds and try to pass a more ambitious immigration reform package next year.
But Newhouse said immigration reform for the country’s farm workers, whom the federal government has declared “essential” during the pandemic, can’t wait. The nation’s agricultural counties have been hit especially hard by the virus – Yakima County now has the highest per-capita rate of confirmed cases on the West Coast – as farm workers, many undocumented and not eligible for government support, have continued to supply the nation’s food.
“Having a multibillion-dollar industry being dependent on an illegal workforce, in my mind, is just crazy,” Newhouse said. “But it’s also not good for the communities to have this situation where people are undocumented.”
The pandemic, Newhouse said, has brought a “realization on the part of the American public that having a stable source of food is truly a critical issue, it’s an issue of national security. To have the necessary labor force in place to continue producing a stable supply of food is more important than ever.”
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