'Historic' bill that would grant legal status to undocumented farm workers advances to the Senate

It's being called a historic and bipartisan effort to protect and stabilize the lives of thousands of workers who help bring food to the table in this country.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would give undocumented farm workers and growers the right to earn legal status.

H.R. 5038 passed with a 260-165 vote in the House, sending it to the Senate. It marked the first time in more than 30 years that the House has enacted an agriculture labor immigration bill.

The legislation would simplify the visa system for farmers to hire labor abroad and would grant a new path to permanent residency for undocumented agricultural workers already in the country.

It would also reform and expand the H-2A temporary worker visa program by providing more flexibility for employers, while ensuring critical protections for workers. 

California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) introduced the bill. In a press release she said, "...farmworkers across the country are living and working with uncertainty and fear, contributing to the destabilization of farms across the nation.”

Lofgren added, “Our bill offers stability for American farms... In addition, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act addresses the nation’s future labor needs by modernizing an outdated system for temporary workers, while ensuring fair wages and workplace conditions."

With the support of 34 Republicans, the legislation is being hailed as an example of successful bipartisan efforts that included policy discussions from agricultural stakeholders and labor organizations. 

Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) co-sponsored the bill. “Our farmers and ranchers facing a labor crisis need relief, and the men and women who contribute to our nation's agriculture industry need certainty," Newhouse said. "The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is the first step. This bill is our opportunity to finally provide stability to America's farms and a significant improvement over the status quo."

Opponents argued the proposal grants amnesty to immigrants who are in the country illegally. "... the real point of this bill: a path to citizenship for an unknown number of illegal immigrants who do some work in agriculture, along with their families,” Rep. Doug Collins, (R-Ga) said at the Judiciary Committee markup last month.

More than 300 agriculture groups and labor organizations threw their support behind the bill. 

"Experienced and professional agricultural workers— who have earned the right to a stable future in the United States for themselves and their families—will be liberated from the pervasive fear they face every day while performing one of the toughest jobs in America.” said Arturo S. Rodriguez, President Emeritus, United Farm Workers. 

Lofgren urged the Senate to take the House's lead and called for swift action to "pass the first-of-its-kind bipartisan immigration compromise in decades." 

California has the highest number of farm workers who are undocumented, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.