Bill would replace H-2A and E-Verify programs
The bill also includes an agricultural guest worker program under the jurisdiction of the USDA. That program would go into effect one year after the bill is signed into law and would replace the H-2A visa program.
“We feel farmers will be able to work better with the USDA instead of the Department of Labor because it is more concerned about their businesses and understands them better,” Stenzel said.
The blue card program and the agricultural guest worker program are better for U.S. growers than the H-2A system, Stenzel said, because they allow for more workers.
The H-2A system covers between 50,000 and 70,000 workers, said Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association, which is also a founding member of the coalition. She said the apple industry alone needs about 70,000 harvest workers each fall to handpick billions of apples.
With new agricultural guest worker program, 112,000 new workers could gain legal entry during each of the first three years of the program. In years four and five the number would be capped at a cumulative total of 337,000. After the fifth year the secretary of agriculture would set the cap for the guest ag workers, depending on the needs of U.S. producers.
When the new ag guest worker program under USDA gets rolling, Stenzel said foreign workers could apply for three-year visas to work on at-will or on a contract basis.
Agricultural employers would have to register with USDA and meet documentation requirements to use the guest workers.
Among the requirements would be a beefed-up version of the E-Verify program. If enacted, the bill would repeal E-Verify and replace it with an employment verification system yet to be developed, the proposed legislation states.
Mike Stuart, president of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, another of the coalition’s founding partners, said the reforms in the bill provide a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to fix a broken system.
The problems with E-Verify, as far as the fresh produce industry was concerned, were related to errors generated by a complicated, expensive database, Stenzel said. One example, he said, is that 5% to 10% of the Social Security numbers in the system are incorrect.
Under the new electronic job verification system, states’ driver license photo databases would be incorporated into a national photo database. The bill includes $250 million to help states pay for participation in the system.
Fines for employers who hire unauthorized workers would begin at $3,500 per violation and reach $25,000 per violation for repeated offenses. Employers who failed to keep required records of employees’ verified status would face fines beginning at $500 per incident and increasing to $8,000 per incident for repeated offenses.