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Congress Considers Blue Cards for Farmworkers

U.S. Agriculture Could Benefit From a Stable, Legal Immigrant Labor Supply

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For decades, the United States’ green card has been coveted by immigrants from all over the world.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., thinks the country also needs a blue card that could become just as coveted by foreign farmworkers and help relieve U.S. labor shortages.

The blue card is the signature feature of the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS) that Feinstein introduced in Congress in October 2011. She says the bill would reform the H-2A seasonal guest worker program and provide U.S. farmers with a stable, legal workforce.

For immigrant workers, the bill also would offer a path to citizenship for those already employed in the country. Those immigrants would have to pass background checks and pay fines and back taxes to gain legal status.

About 80 percent of the U.S. farm workforce is illegal, according to government officials. Feinstein believes the AgJOBS bill is a vehicle for providing a legal, stable source of labor for an agriculture industry that has struggled to keep workers in the fields.

The labor problems were exacerbated in 2011 because of strict immigration laws enacted by Alabama, Georgia and several other states. The new laws drove many farmworkers and caused huge losses because of labor shortages.

American workers have not stepped in to fill the openings immigrants left their jobs.

“Today across the United States, there are not enough agricultural workers to pick, prune, pack or harvest our country’s crops,” Feinstein says. “With an inadequate supply of workers, farmers from Maine to California, and from Washington state to Georgia, have watched their produce rot and their farms lay fallow over the years.”

The AgJOBS bill, which has support in both the Senate and House, would create a five-year pilot program to identify undocumented agriculture workers and legalize those who qualify. Supporters say it would be an important step toward comprehensive reform. Some of the bill’s provisions:

  • Undocumented agriculture workers would be eligible for a “blue card” if they can demonstrate having worked in American agriculture for at least 150 work days (or 863 hours) over the previous two years before December 31, 2008. 
  • The blue card holder would be required to work in American agriculture for an additional three years (working at least 150 work days per year) or five years (working at least 100 work days per year), before becoming eligible to apply for a green card to become a permanent legal resident.
  • The blue card would entitle the worker to a temporary legal resident status. The total number of blue cards would be capped at 1.35 million over a five-year period, and the program would sunset after five years. 
  • Before applying for a green card, participants would be required to pay a fine of $500, show that they are current on their taxes, and show that they have not been convicted of any crime that involves bodily injury, the threat of serious bodily injury, or harm to property in excess of $500. 
  • Employment would be verified through employer issued statements, pay stubs, W-2 forms, employer contracts, time cards, employer sponsored health care or payment of taxes. 
  • All blue cards would have encrypted, biometric identifiers and contain other anti-counterfeiting protection. 
  • The bill also would streamline the H-2A seasonal worker visa program so that it responds to agriculture needs. 
  • The bill would shorten the labor certification process, which now often takes 60 days or more, and reduce the approval time to 48 to 72 hours. 
  • The bill also would require that growers first advertise and recruit U.S. workers.
  • The H-2A visas would be secure and counterfeit resistant.

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