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Crawford introduces AGRI Act

BY GARY EXELBY gexelby@paragoulddailypress.com

An Arkansas congressman has introduced a bill to remedy shortcomings with the nation's guest worker program. U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR-1), introduced the AGRI Act on July 12.

According to information from Crawford's office, the bill, if enacted, would transfer jurisdiction for agricultural guest workers from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture, on the theory that USDA is better suited to address the need for temporary workers and will make the program more accessible to the farmers who use it.

"For several years, the H-2A visa program has been a great benefit to our nation's farmers by allowing alien workers to temporarily stay and participate in farm work during harvest season," Crawford said in a statement released as he filed the bill. "However, the current program has a lot of flaws which makes it difficult for producers to comply. The AGRI Act is comprehensive reform that streamlines the guest worker program and gives our farmers a steady stream of farm labor which is critical to production."

According to information on Fact Sheet 26 from the federal Department of Labor, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) authorizes the lawful admission of temporary, nonimmigrant workers (H-2A workers) to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. Employers must demonstrate the need for a specific number of H-2A workers, and cannot hire H-2A workers if the given employer laid off U.S. workers within 60 days of the date of need, unless the laid-off U.S. workers were offered and rejected the agricultural job opportunities for which the H-2A workers were sought. A layoff of U.S. workers in corresponding employment is permissible only if all H-2A workers are laid off first. Employers may only reject eligible U.S. workers for lawful, job-related reasons.

According to Crawford's House web page, the bill (HR3740) has been referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, and in addition to the Committees on Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor, "for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker, in each case for consideration of such provisions as fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned."

According to information made available from Crawford's Washington office, the main differences between the AGRI Act and Crawford's previously submitted "STRAW Act" (HR 707 in 2013) is that a farmer is not liable for the actions of absconded employees. "We found [this] was a major issue in our district," said Crawford's press secretary Sarah Robertson in an e-mail to The Daily Press. "It also fast-tracks the process to replace absconded workers so that [farmers] can get that needed help before the season ends."

The previously introduced STRAW Act did not make it out of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration And Border Security.

Among other things, according to the text of the AGRI Act as introduced and to Robertson, it calls in all cases for pertinent duties currently assigned to the Secretary of Labor to be assigned instead to the Secretary of Agriculture.

HR 3740 also calls for such "agricultural guest workers" (as H-2A workers would be known were the bill to be signed into law) to stay in the United States for no more than 11 months at a time, nor for more than three years total. In addition, no employer to be required to pay such workers more than the highest federal, state or local minimum wage.

The Secretary of Agriculture is supposed to report to Congress semiannually regarding the agricultural guest workers program. Congress is to be informed of the number of nonimmigrant visas issued under the program, an evaluation of the effectiveness of the program, a description of any problems related to its enforcement, and any recommendations for legislation relating to the program.

Greene County farmer Tommy Justus employs two H-2A workers from South Africa. He said as filed, the bill did not appear as if it would have much effect on his workers.

"Mine are planning on going back [home] anyhow," he said Tuesday. "And the H-2A program lets them stay for no more than 10 months, although they can file for an extension."

The state Department of Agriculture will not be affected by the AGRI Act should it become law, according to department Public Information Manager Brett Dawson.

"We don't [have anything on it] due to it being a federal rule change," Dawson said in an e-mail.

According to www.house.gov, the bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship on Aug. 6.