Wanted H-2A reform: in Yoho’s words
Can Congress really take up immigration legislation so close to an election year? It seems doubtful, but if it is possible it may be that a targeted approach to H-2A reform would be the vehicle.
Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., spoke on the floor of Congress Sept. 19 about the need to reform the H-2A program. Here are his remarks about his proposed H-2A legislation :
Mr. YOHO. Madam Speaker, I have a photo here from June 2014, when my colleagues on the other side said there was a crisis, and it was under President Barack Obama. This is still going on at the border. I look at these people, and they look like people who want opportunity. They are coming to this country.
I have this other photo, and there are families, women, children, husbands. They look like people who are wanting to come into this country for opportunity. Congress has failed, and it has not just failed this Nation, but it failed these people in the policies that we don’t have because of political divide.
We talk about how we want to fix the crisis on climate change, but we don’t come together on that.
We want to talk about the immigration crisis, but we don’t come together on it because it becomes a wedge and a tool that people use in politics for the next election.
They say, well, they are against that, and that is why you have to vote me back in.
That happens on immigration. That is why immigration doesn’t get fixed. I am convinced of that. So we have proposed a guest worker program that will solve probably about 90 percent, what our estimates are, of the people who are coming across our southwest border.
I think we are all in agreement that the people coming across our southwest border are not the rocket scientists; they are not the engineers; they are not the health professionals. They are the people who are working in the lower skills--agriculture, hospitality, and construction--but yet they are so needed in this country because, without them, this country won’t work. We can’t grow the fruits and vegetables, and we can’t build the buildings. So what we have proposed is a guest worker program. If you would picture a banner, Madam Speaker, ``Guest Worker Program.’’ And understand, it is not immigration reform, because ``immigration,’’ if we use that word up here, they part. This side blames the Republicans of wanting to deport everybody.
On my side, we will say this side wants to give everybody amnesty. Neither is true. So they walk away and nothing gets done. We have seen this year after year for 36 years. So the banner bill will say, ``Guest Worker Program.’’ It will have three silos: One will be agriculture, which is the one I am heading; one will have hospitality; and one will have construction.
I will talk about the agriculture program. The way this works is it does three things: It creates a prescreened pool before people come into the country, which is number one. Number two is it addresses the people who are already here illegally. Number three, it reforms the H-2A program, which is a temporary seasonal program of 10 months, and it makes it stronger so it serves our producers better, but it also protects the migrant worker.
This is something that should not be a partisan issue. This is something that I have shared personally in this Chamber with over 50 Members of the House of Representatives in a bipartisan way; I have shared it on the Senate side in a bipartisan way; and we have shared it with outside industries around the country. In fact, I am getting calls from people from Wisconsin, from Indiana, from Pennsylvania, and from California who want this bill passed. Basically, what this does, briefly, is, on the H-2A program, which is a temporary worker visa program--for 10 months, it is supposed to be.
The way the program works now is somebody will come in on an H-2A program for temporary work. They will get a waiver, and that waiver will be for 1 year. Then they can get another waiver up to 3 years. What we have seen is people just kind of fade off the grid, and they wind up being in America illegally. They may have come in legally, but then they transfer and become a person here illegally. Then they live in the shadows, and they are afraid to come out for fear of deportation. The other thing is they come in on an H-2A visa currently, and they may leave the agriculture permit that they came in on and work construction and get hired by construction.
Or they may go into another field, and so the permit that allowed them to come in, they don’t honor. So with our program, we tighten up the restrictions on H-2A. People come in on a guest worker H-2A visa that dedicates them to the sector of agriculture, and they are dedicated to be in that sector because that is what they have agreed to come in on. They can stay up to 11 months is what we are proposing, then they go back home, and then they can come back.
The other thing we do is the prescreening portion of this bill works this way: We will have a country-to-country agreement between, say, the country of Honduras and the United States. It is a state-to-State Department agreement. So, if a person from Honduras or anywhere in Central America wants to come to the United States, they apply.
They must be a minimum of 18 years of age. They have to apply individually. If they are married and the spouse wants to come in, that spouse applies, but they have to be a minimum of 18, no children.
They apply. That information from the country they come from goes to our State Department, and it would be basically passport information: their name, their address, age, and things like that. Our DHS will take that information. They will do a background check. Once they clear the background check, that person who applied as an applicant, they are permitted to come into the country, but only after a job is available. When a person applies, they can apply to a sector. Maybe it is dairy; maybe it is fruits and vegetables; or maybe it is a citrus program.
Once they get accepted into the country and a job is available, they get issued what we call a GWIC card, which is short for ``guest worker identification card,’’ and it will look like any other kind of identification. It will have smart card or smart chip technology. It will have the individual’s picture on it. Once a person gets this card, they are permitted to be in the country for a 5-year period of time. For 5 years they can stay in this country, and they can renew 4\1/2\ years into the program.
After that, they can continually do that, provided they stay a person of good standing in the Nation. They can get a driver’s license number. It will be a guest worker driver’s license number that has to be renewed every 5 years. It will start off in the State they get approved in and when they pass the test. But that will allow them to drive in the country legally. It gives them a chance to come into the country legally, whether they want to be a temporary worker or a 5-year, year-round worker.
We have a restriction in there that they have to commit to work 75 percent of the year in the agriculture sector, on the guest worker program for agriculture. That person has taken on the responsibility and commitment that they will work in ag, and ag only.
On both programs with the H-2A or the 5-year guest worker program, that individual is automatically entered into the E-Verify system. So when our employers take somebody out of the pool, they are automatically using E-Verify.
That person, again, is free to travel the country. If they come in, say they want to do citrus in Florida, that season is over usually by mid-June. They can go to North Carolina and work with another crop, or maybe the State of Washington or New York, and they can stay indefinitely in the country for that 5-year period of time. But they must work a minimum 75 percent of the year in the United States in agriculture. If they choose to leave agriculture and work in construction and they get picked up or found out and they get hired illegally by a contractor, what happens is they have broken the terms of their agreement, and they will be deported for that.
That identification number will be a 15-digit identification number with the initials ``AG’’ at the end of it for agriculture. So that person, when they are put into the E-Verify system, if they are hired by an ag employer, those have to jibe.
If that person tries to go to construction, then his number won’t work in a construction entity. If an employer tries to hire somebody illegally who is permitted to work in agriculture and they want to hire them in construction, then they are subject to a $2,500 fine per person per incident. This is something that we hear over and over again from our producers and our contractors in the hospitality industry. They need a guest worker program, and our goal for this was to create a reliable, a predictable, and a certain workforce for the labor of this country.
The second part of the 5-year program is this: For the people who are in the country illegally, they can apply to this program. What we have done is we have moved ag labor from the Department of Labor to the USDA. So for that group of people who are in this country illegally, they can apply to this program. The program will be run by the United States Department of Agriculture, and they will run a program that says: For this time period, if you are here illegally and you want to apply to this program, then you can apply with the understanding that we are not looking to deport you.
We are looking to get you to a legal status in this country for 5 years at a time. While that person is applying, he is what we call the applicant. During that process, they are protected from being deported. Background checks will be run. We realize that some people are going to have fender benders. They may not have shown up for a court date or didn’t return a library book.
We understand that, and they will be given due time to get right with the law and clear up their past.
When they get accepted into the program, they become a participant. During that time period as a participant, they are here for 5 years at a time and can renew 4\1/2\ years into it. They get the GWIC card, and they get the 15-digit identification number that dedicates them to work in the ag center. They are not dedicated to a certain employer, and they can renew 4\1/2\ years into it.
If they came in illegally with a family, their family is also protected during that period of time when a background check is being done. Once that is cleared up, that family is protected for up to 5 years at a time. Again, when they renew, that family is protected. It is not a pathway to citizenship. If somebody wants to become a citizen, then they apply for citizenship just like anybody else who wants to become a citizen of our great Nation.
In this program, again, what we are looking for is to create a reliable and predictable workforce for our agriculture sector, and it gives the flexibility of the individual to move around the country to fulfill the needs that migrant worker has. We did a roundtable throughout the State of Florida over the August recess. We stopped at 10 different areas in my State. Florida is a large agriculture State.
People think of it as beaches and palm trees, but we are also the number one producer of sweet corn in the country, number one in watermelons, number one in citrus in the Nation, and we have over 300 specialty crops. So we are very heavily dependent on migrant labor. As we traveled around our State, we got a tremendous amount of feedback from all the different sectors.
We sat down with the migrant help workforce. I am a veterinarian by trade, and I worked with horses and cattle. have been around agriculture since I was 15. I have talked to the migrant. I have talked to the people. I found out by asking them: Did you come here legally or illegally? They would tell you because we had a great relationship. They would say: I came here illegally. You can ask them: Do you want to become a citizen? Some do, some don’t. Most of them just want the opportunity to come here and work.
When we were in south Florida going through talking to some of the producers, they were saying people from Honduras can come here and work a season, maybe 5 months. The amount of money they make in 5 months is equivalent to 5 years in that nation. I saw this as a way that we can fulfill the needs of our producers and fulfill the needs of food security for this Nation but also fulfill the needs of that worker who wants to come here for a better life, and they have the opportunity to become a citizen if they go through the normal channels. The other thing this does, and I didn’t mention this, is there is a $2,500 fee for that 5-year permit, which breaks down to $500 a year. For the person who came in illegally, the first time they apply and get accepted into this program and become a participant, there will be the $2,500 fee for the permit, but there will also be a $2,500 fine because they have agreed that they have broken the law coming in. That puts that argument to rest of, well, they broke our law. These people realize that. They acknowledge it. They paid the fine, and we can move forward.
I thought it was interesting, when we went down and did our tour around the State, that the producers said: You know, it comes down to this. This Nation will either import their food, or they are going to import their labor. This is a national security issue. I look at these workers--I have worked with so many of these people over the course of the years, over the last 30 years, and they are great people. My heart goes out to them because I know they want a better future. I know they want to live an American Dream--maybe not in this country, but maybe the Honduran dream. If a person can work 5 months here and have the equivalent of 5 years’ pay in their home country, it can change lives, and it will develop an economy down there.
So what I ask our Members of Congress to do is get this information. They can go to our website, yoho.house.gov. They can go to the legislation tab and click on that. That will have a drop-down screen, and there will be the ag guest worker program. We have two short videos on that that explain this program. We have a 10-page white paper that explains this program. We have a bill that is already written--it is right at 110 pages--that we look to introduce. This is not a solution to immigration. It is a solution to the workforce challenges we have in this Nation in agriculture, hospitality, and construction.
By doing this and coming to agreement on border security and enforcing the laws already on the books and by giving people a legal portal to come into this country legally--they are prescreened before they come in--and by allowing people who are in this country illegally to become legal, we have solved a big crisis that this body has been unable to fulfill, and we honor the American people. It causes more division in this Nation, more division in this House, and it just grinds the wheels of progress for this Nation to an end.
TK: I think the elements of the legislation cover industry needs to account for the current workforce; how much bipartisan support this bill can garner will its key test.