Our U.S. immigration law is often described as a patchwork crazy quilt. The basic framework that we are currently using was passed in 1952 and 1965. Since that time, we have been randomly sewing on patches of legislation, both large and small, trying to address issues on a piecemeal basis. There have been calls for comprehensive immigration reform for decades, but it is such a large task that no U.S. Congress has been able to agree on legislation. Neither is the U.S. Congress even able to agree very often on smaller bits of legislation.

In a past column, I wrote that there is no “good guy” visa (“The ‘good guy’ visa doesn’t actually exist,” June 6, 2019). On Dec. 11, 2019, the U.S. House did pass a bill with bipartisan support, the HR 5038 Farm Workforce Modernization Act, that could help a lot of those “good guys.” This bill was drafted by four Republicans and three Democrats. It would add flexibility to the H-2A visa category, which is our current very clunky program for temporary agricultural jobs. The bill would allow employers to bring in new foreign labor, and it would also allow foreign nationals who have already been working in the U.S. in the agricultural sector to request work authorization. Many foreign nationals in the Cooke County area who have been working for years on the local farms and ranches would likely benefit if this bill were to become law.

Employers in the agricultural industry are currently caught in a catch-22. Many have an employee who is undocumented, and the employer would like to fix the foreign national’s status. But for many, there is no legal way that it can be fixed, often because the foreign national has been in the U.S. without any status. This has led to “unlawful presence” which makes the foreign national subject to a bar if they were to leave the U.S. Most work visas require the foreign national to leave the U.S. to apply for a visa abroad at a U.S. consulate, and that departure from the U.S. then triggers the 10-year bar which is punishment for the “unlawful presence.” This “unlawful presence” and the 10-year bar prevents the foreign national’s reentry to the U.S. This bill would allow the foreign national to obtain legal work status for five years without leaving the U.S. It would also allow their spouse and children to be in the U.S. legally. Foreign nationals would need to pass a background check to ensure that they have not committed any crimes which would prevent them from qualifying for this status.

Many workers would also be able to apply for legal permanent residence if they have 10 years of working in agriculture at the time the law passes and would need to work an additional four years in order to apply. Workers with less than 10 years would need to work an additional eight years before applying.

The bill would limit social services and the employers would need to comply with E-Verify, a government database that tracks work authorization, so that it is clear that the foreign nationals are authorized to work. Overall, the bill would provide more stability for the farmers and ranchers and also for the workers.

A USDA study states that for crop farmworkers for the 2014-2016 period, 21% were authorized immigrants and 48% were non-authorized immigrants. Most workers are settled and work close to home. There are few migrants who follow the crops, which was common in the past. For the agricultural industry as a whole, undocumented immigrants make up 15% of the workforce.

The HR 5038 Farm Workforce Modernization Act bill passed with a vote of 260-165, with 34 Republicans voting for the bill. Over 350 agricultural groups supported the bill.

If you would like to read an article that goes into further detail, please go to “House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers” at thehill.com. The Hill is a news outlet based in Washington, D.C., and it is generally considered a neutral publication that focuses on the facts, with a slight conservative leaning. You can also review a the full 200-plus page bill and a good two-page summary of the bill on the website of unitedfresh.org (a produce association) under their “advocacy” section.

The U.S. Senate has not yet taken up the bill. If this sounds like a reasonable plan to you, please contact your U.S. Senators for Texas to encourage them to back this bill (Ted Cruz at telephone 202-224-5922 and John Cornyn at telephone 202-224-2934).

Alice Gruber has been practicing U.S. immigration and naturalization law since 1995. Since 2007, she has practiced in Cooke County for a range of small to medium-sized corporate clients nationwide, quarter horse ranches in Texas and individuals. If you’d like to suggest a specific immigration topic for a future column, email alice@alicegruber.com.

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