Bipartisan bill could give undocumented Arizona farmworkers path to citizenship

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has sponsored legislation that could allow undocumented immigrants who work in agriculture to get visas. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Wikipedia Commons

A bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last week could mean a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants in Arizona who work in farms.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 was introduced Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Zoe Logfren, D-Calif., and has 44 co-sponsors from both parties, none of whom represent Arizona. It would create a new visa for farmworkers and expand the H-2A visa program, which allows some U.S. companies in the agriculture sector to hire to foreign workers for seasonal labor only.  

Among the many provisions of the bill is one allowing undocumented immigrants who have worked in agriculture for at least 180 days over the previous two years to get “Certified Agricultural Worker” status. The farmworker’s spouse and minor children would also be covered under this agriculture visa, which can be renewed every five years if the immigrant works at least 100 days in agriculture each year. 

A Pew Research study from 2016 estimates undocumented immigrants make up almost 6% of Arizona’s labor force. Farming in Arizona has the highest share of unauthorized immigrant workers of any industry in the state, according to Pew

The state estimates that about 162,000 people are employed in the agriculture industry, according to a 2018 report from the Arizona Department of Agriculture. 

The legislation would allow farmworkers with several years’ of experience to apply for a green card if they pay a $1,000 fine and continue working in agriculture. Immigrants who have worked in agriculture for at least 10 years prior to the law’s enactment would have to work an additional four years and would then be eligible for a green card (officially known as legal permanent resident status, which is the precursor to naturalization.) Those with less than 10 years of experience would have to work an additional eight years in agriculture to be eligible for the green card.    

Undocumented immigrants who don’t have 180 days of farmwork experience and therefore aren’t eligible for the Certified Agricultural Worker visa status could apply for an H-2A visa under the proposal. 

The legislation would also make broad changes to the H-2A program. It would allow H-2A workers to obtain green cards, which is currently prohibited, through sponsorship of their employer or by having that visa status for a decade. 

Currently, the H-2A program requires workers to return to their home countries after completing their seasonal jobs, but employers can re-hire them for the following season. The bill expands the H-2A program to non-seasonal agricultural employers, like dairies and animal farming. Those year-round visas for farm work would be capped at 20,000 annually. The current H-2A visa program doesn’t have a cap.

According to a U.S. Department of Labor report, Arizona companies were authorized to hire about 4,000 H-2A program workers in fiscal year 2019.  

Nationally, companies were authorized to fill about 258,000 job openings with foreign workers for seasonal agricultural duties. Florida, Georgia, Washington and California are the states with the largest amount of H-2A workers certified, in that order.      

H-2A employers must provide transportation and housing, and in Arizona the minimum pay is $12. 

The bill makes some changes to how the wage is calculated. 

The United Farm Workers, the country’s largest farm workers union, praised the bill as a “thoughtful compromise.”

“Agricultural workers will have stability for themselves and their families. The bill addresses the pervasive fear faced every day by the immigrant farm workers who perform one of the toughest jobs in America,” said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez. “With legal status, immigrant farm workers will be more likely to follow the crops to other regions and states. They will be able to return to join loved ones in their home countries for funerals and marriages and other vital family events.”

The legislation is the result of nine months of negotiations between Democratic and Republican members of Congress, farmers and farmworkers, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-CA, said in a statement. 

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.