WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats hope to broker a deal with Republicans that would grant legal status to farmworkers currently in the country illegally but would require employers to verify the immigration status of all future hires.
Democrats hope the compromise could draw GOP support by forcing employers to use E-Verify, a federal online system, to ensure farmworkers are eligible to work, said David Shahoulian, the Democratic chief counsel on the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, speaking at an immigration policy conference earlier this month in Washington, D.C. Farmers are not required to investigate claims of legal status in most states.
The potential agreement would give a path to citizenship to a large group of farmworkers for the first time since President Ronald Reagan’s administration more than 30 years ago, when tougher enforcement was also added. Farmworkers would get deportation protection followed by eventual legal status if they keep working.
A Republican proposal last year would have offered only temporary visas to such workers in exchange for E-Verify, but it was voted down in the House.
More than a third of the nation’s 1 million agricultural workers are noncitizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 Current Population Survey. Guest H-2A farmworker visas now are available only for seasonal workers and require employers to transport workers in and out of the country and to provide housing.
The latest potential compromise follows years of discussion on Capitol Hill about how best to balance the needs of agriculture interests and those of their workforce. A bill has not yet been filed, but the proposal has some GOP support, Shahoulian said, including from some conservative Senate Republicans who are “rooting for it to get out of the House so they can at least get a look at it.”
But overall the potential deal faces a tougher road in the Senate — no Republican supporters have spoken out, though the libertarian Cato Institute said the proposal has merit.
The plan is based on the “earned legal status” concept in a Democratic bill introduced earlier this year by California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren that would require several years of documented farm work for deportation protection and eventual citizenship.