Immigration reform is important to millions of undocumented residents across the country. The Senate Bill, titled the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” would make serious and far-reaching changes to existing United States immigration law, if passed. The largest piece of the bill would affect farmworkers through the Agricultural Worker Immigration Program, which would set the terms of wages, visas and working conditions for migrant agriculture workers. This bill still has time before it can become law, but it has strong support from many lawmakers.
Agricultural Worker Immigration Program
This year, Farmworker Justice stated that nearly 11 million people are currently living in the country illegally, and are not seeking legal citizenship, because of the high processing costs, and extreme eligibility requirements. Agricultural workers in particular represent a very high population of undocumented residents. According to the U.S. government, 80 percent of farm workers do not have the necessary documents to work and live in the U.S. legally. Therefore, the United States has begun the process of reforming old immigration laws in order to provide rights and protections to individuals and families who are essential to the country’s economy and food supply.
The Agricultural Worker Immigration Program has two main parts, one of which introduces a “Blue Card status,” which is a program to help legalize undocumented farm workers currently living and working in the U.S. who meet the qualifications described below. The other section of the Program is the Agricultural Visa. According to Senator Feinstein, one of the bill’s authors, this would replace the current H-2A visa for guest workers, which allows a foreign national to enter into the U.S. for temporary or seasonal agricultural work. Today’s H-2A program allows employers who anticipate a shortage of agricultural workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. Currently, the H-2A visa is valid for 364 days, but the new program would be for three years. Also, instead of just one H-2A visa for all types of guest employment (contract or at-will), there would be two different visas. The bill would also introduce certain protections and requirements for farm workers in order to stay in either program. Below, the two programs will be further explained, as well as other changes the bill would introduce if passed.
Blue Card Status:
A Blue Card would provide foreign farmworkers the right to work legally in the United States. The purpose of the card would be to address agricultural labor shortages and as a way to help working immigrants get on a path to citizenship.
In addition to being legally able to work in the U.S., the Blue cardholders would also be able to travel outside of the country for a maximum of 180 days and be admitted back into the U.S. without obtaining one of the many kinds of visas, like the H-2A temporary worker visa. This is generally the rule when a citizen of a foreign country is entering the U.S. If enacted, however, the Blue Card would be the only proof needed to re-enter the country. This would allow farm workers more flexibility to travel to their home countries.
The Blue Card program, if passed into law, would give undocumented farmworkers and their immediate family members a path to citizenship. Those who participate in the Blue Card program for five years would have the opportunity to obtain a Green Card (Permanente Residence Card). Those with a Green Card are authorized to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. An agricultural worker would be eligible for a Green Card after having a Blue Card for five years; paying all taxes, have no felonies or violent misdemeanor convictions and paying a $400 fee. If enacted, this program would help farmworkers work legally, while keeping farm working families together and able to build better lives for their children.
Qualifications for the Blue Card
Current undocumented farmworkers would be able to obtain legal status through the Blue Card program if they can show proof of agricultural employment of a minimum of 100 workdays or 575 hours between 2011 and 2012. If the bill were enacted into law, the application period for a Blue Card would begin between 1-2 years after its passage.
Agricultural Visa Program:
The second program, which would replace the H-2A agricultural guest worker program, would establish new temporary work visas for foreign agricultural workers. This program would create two new working visas (W-2 and W-3) one for atwill employment, meaning the employee can switch employers at any time (W-3) and the other for contracted employees (W-2).
In addition to revising the H-2A program, farmworkers should be aware of the following visa changes:
- Wage Rates: There would be a set wage rate for the different agricultural job categories. If the bill passes, these rates would take effect in 2016.
- Work Requirements: A worker would lose their visa status and must depart the U.S. if unemployed for more than 60 consecutive days.
- Housing Requirements: Employers must provide housing or a housing allowance for all workers.
- Transportation to and from job sites: W-2 contract employees – employer would be required to provide transportation. W-3 at-will employees – employer would not be required to provide transportation.
- Worker’s Compensation: Under this program, workers would be eligible for Worker’s Compensation (a form of insurance providing wage replacement and medical benefits to employees injured in the course of employment).
- Three Year Visa Terms: A guest worker can renew a visa once after three years have passed. After six years, the worker must live outside of the U.S. for a period of three months before they can obtain another visa.
Other Benefits of Senate Bill 744:
This bill also introduces several other programs that would aid undocumented immigrant families, including:
New Family V Visa: This part of the bill would create a new nonimmigrant visa for families with approved petitions to work and live in the U.S. while waiting for their Green Card. This visa would allow other family members including siblings to visit the U.S. for up to 60 days per year.
DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act: The DREAM Act would provide limited permanent residency to certain immigrants who graduate from U.S. high schools or arrived in the United States as minors. This would allow young people who were brought to the United States as minors to receive Green Cards quickly if they serve in the military or attend college. According to the bill, if enacted, DREAM would provide a pathway to citizenship in five years.
To qualify, DREAMers must meet certain requirements, including having lived in the U.S. since December 31, 2011, entered the U.S. before the age of 16 and either graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED (General Education Diploma). As of now, the bill does not place an age cap to qualify, only that the DREAMer had to have come to the U.S. before age 16. The immigration reform bill also excludes DREAMers from having to pay certain fees for gaining their citizenship. Additionally, DREAMers who were deported prior to 2012 for non-criminal reasons would be allowed to reenter the country under the bill.
This bill is still in the process of approval, but it is expected to pass with a majority of votes in favor of the bill. The final vote on the bill should take place sometime this month. The Voice of the Fields will track the status of this bill, especially the agricultural worker reform, including the Blue Card Program and the Agricultural Visa Program. When information becomes available, we will make our readers aware.