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House Approves Path To Legal Status For Farmworkers

Doug McKnight
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would give agricultural workers the opportunity to earn legal status, like these workers harvesting celery in Spreckles, south of Salinas, California.

Congressman Jimmy Panetta (CA-20) has been working on legislation for the past nine months that could have a major impact on one of the Central Coast’s most important industries - agriculture. 

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act

The bill aims to do a number of things: give agricultural workers the opportunity to earn legal status; reform the Ag worker visa program known as H-2A; and provide more protections for workers.

The bill would give Ag workers, who have been employed for at least six months, the opportunity to get a five-year renewable visa. And after 10 years, the opportunity to apply for Legal Permanent Resident Status (LPR). Forty thousand additional green cards will also be made available each year to Ag workers.

Workers’ wages would also have to better reflect real-world wages and there would be a cap on pay increases and decreases.

The bill aims to reduce housing costs by authorizing $1 billion towards farmworker and rural housing rehabilitation.

Local Congressman Jimmy Panetta co-authored the bill.

Speaking on the House floor before the vote, he said this bill is a step in the right direction. 

“For our agriculture, for immigration reform, and yes, even this Congress,” said Panetta.

While the bill had the support of 34 Republicans in the House, it has been panned by immigration hawks as amnesty for agricultural workers. 

Speaking after the bill passed the House, Panetta said he expected that criticism. 

“We're not giving them anything. They have to earn the opportunity to stay here by continuing to work in agriculture, continuing to be successful. Basically, if someone is going to get citizenship from this bill, it's going to take over 10 years to do that,” said Panetta.

The bill now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it could face a more difficult road ahead.

Panetta acknowledged that, but said he had to be optimistic. 

“I believe that because it's bipartisan, because we got the amount of Republicans that we did on this bill, I think that's something the Senate will look at,” Panetta said.