Farmworkers in Moorpark, CA, pick radishes on June 3, 203. Credit: Melissa Montalvo / Fresno Bee/Fresnoland

A Central Valley Republican congressman is teaming with the United Farm Workers to support a bipartisan federal bill they say would help reduce food costs, ease agriculture labor shortages, and grant legal status to some undocumented farmworkers before the year’s end.

On Thursday, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, introduced the Affordable and Secure Food Act, a bill that aims to address food costs and the agricultural labor shortage by reforming and expanding the H-2A, guest agricultural worker program.

The legislation is largely based on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act which passed twice in the house but never came to a vote in the Senate. “Next week is our last best opportunity to address the labor crisis in American agriculture,” Bennet said.

“We’re coming up on the end of the year, and it’s crunch time,” said Central Valley Congressman David Valadao, in a news conference on Thursday, “but it’s important that we do this, and important that we move forward.”

Valadao represents California’s 21st Congressional District, which includes Kings County as well as portions of Fresno, Kern, and Tulare counties. Due to redistricting, he will represent the 22nd district in the new year, which includes parts of Kern, Kings, and Tulare counties.

What’s new in this bill?

Under the Affordable and Secure Food Act, farmworkers would be eligible to earn a path to permanent residency, or a green card, after 10 years of agriculture work. The bill would also provide H-2A visas for year-round jobs for the first time and modernize the application process for H-2A visas.

One difference from the FWMA is that the Affordable and Secure Food Act would freeze guest worker wages, and increases would be capped at 3% for 2024 to 2034, according to a fact sheet on the bill.

Similar to the FMWA, however, the legislation would establish a mandatory, nationwide electronic verification, or “e-verify” system, for all agricultural employment, which some labor and farmworker advocates vehemently oppose.

The bill has widespread support among agriculture industry groups.

“There is no doubt that agriculture has waited many years for immigration reform, and we are optimistic that this bill will finally accomplish this goal,” said Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresno Fruit Association and a supporter of the legislation, in a statement on Thursday.

Other industry supporters include: the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, International Fresh Produce Association, AmericanHort​, Land O’Lakes, Inc., American Business Immigration Coalition-Action, Western Growers, National Potato Council, U.S. Apple Association, American Mushroom Institute, Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, and the National Farmers Union.

UFW backs bipartisan compromise

In addition to agriculture industry support, the bill is supported by the United Farm Workers, the flagship farmworker union founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

During Thursday’s news conference, UFW President Teresa Romero urged “everyone on the hill who cares about farmworkers to work as hard as farmworkers and turn this bill into law.

“This is the very least we owe the hardworking men and women who break their backs to put food on our tables,” she said.

Addressing farmworkers in Spanish, Romero said the legislation wasn’t perfect and the union made difficult concessions, but that the bill means legal status for farmworkers.

According to a report by the Washington D.C.-based Roll Call, the bill lacks a Republican backer in the Senate, notably Sen. Michael D. Crapo, the Idaho Republican who had negotiated with Bennet on the Senate bill for nearly a year.

Bennet will try to get the legislation passed in the omnibus spending bill, an aid told The Bee. There are less than two weeks left on the legislative calendar to pass the bill.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.

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