Costa spearheads effort to expedite legal resident status for farmworkers

Reintroduced Farm Workforce Modernization Act 2023 looks to streamline the H-2A agricultural worker visa program, provide a path towards legal resident status undocumented farmworkers

Workers carrying tools to work in an orchard outside of Dinuba.
Workers carrying tools to work in an orchard outside of Dinuba.
Darren Fraser
Published July 7, 2023  • 
1:00 pm

SACRAMENTO – Undocumented farmworkers in the Central Valley may soon have an easier time obtaining legal resident status now that Congress members from both sides of the aisle have pitched in to resurrect a 2021 piece of legislation. If passed, the law could speed up the time it takes for undocumented farmworkers and their families to earn temporary or permanent resident status.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2023 (FWMA) is now before the House of Representatives. The House passed the same act in 2021, but the bill failed to garner the required 60 Senate votes and died in the Senate. According to Anthony Camacho, press secretary for Congressman Jim Costa (D-CA-21), this latest iteration of the legislation may fare better than its predecessor.

“There is greater bipartisan support this time,” Camacho said. He added that this latest version of the bill contains modifications that may make it more palatable to Republican lawmakers.

According to the Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey, there were 146,400 people working in farming, fishing and forestry jobs in the Central Valley; of course, not all of these individuals were undocumented. In a March 2022 blog post, the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that the Central Valley produces over 250 crops valued at about $17 billion per year and contributes roughly 25% of the country’s food.

The next step, according to Camacho, is to get the bill to a committee hearing. If the bill passes a committee hearing, it will be submitted to the floor for a House vote.

A tractor and pickup truck are parked along a road outside of Dinuba.

“Providing a path to legal residency for the men and women who work to put food on our dinner tables is long overdue,” Congressman Costa said in a statement on his House website. “These workers feed Americans and deserve a  path to legal residency.”

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (CA-18) introduced the legislation in 2021. According to a press release issued by Lofgren’s office, if the bill is passed, it will improve the process in three key areas.

The first area focuses on securing the domestic agricultural workforce. FWMA provides a route for undocumented workers to apply for Certified Agricultural Worker status. This is a temporary resident status for individuals who worked at least 180 days in the agriculture industry over the prior two years. This status can be renewed indefinitely, provided the individual works at least 100 days per year in the industry.

FWMA contains provisions relating to permanent resident status. Individuals who seek a green card must pay a $1,000 fine. Individuals who can prove they have at least 10 years of agricultural work prior to the date the bill becomes law must work an additional four years; individuals with less than 10 years must work an additional eight years.

The second area focuses on maintaining an agricultural workforce for now and in the future. FWMA purports to accomplish this by consolidating the H-2A filing process; by allowing employers to file a single petition for staggered, seasonal labor needs; by moving the recruitment process into the digital arena – and away from traditional newspaper ads; and by reducing visa-processing costs by issuing H-2A workers three-year visas.

FWMA includes provisions for ensuring there are enough workers for year-round agriculture. The bill increases the number of H-2A visas to 20,000 annually. The bill will also establish a Portable Agricultural Worker pilot program. This program will allow the free movement and employment of up to 10,000 workers with registered agricultural employers. 

The third area focuses on employment verification. FWMA will create a nationwide E-Verify system for all agricultural employees. This system will come online only after all other H-2A reforms contained in the bill have been implemented. The system will ensure that authorized workers will be accorded all due process protections.

Lofgren joined Costa, Dan Newhouse (R-WA-04), Mike Simpson (R-ID-02), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA-19), David Valadao (R-CA-22), Salud Carbajal (D-CA-24), John Duarte (R-CA-13), Henry Cuellar (D-TX-28) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY-02) in this latest effort to expedite the legal resident process.

Darren Fraser
Reporter