Stefanik backs bill on guest worker visas

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, speaks during a "Coffee with your Congresswoman" event on April 5 at the Moreau Community Center in South Glens Falls. (Photo — Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli, The Post-Star)

After the failure last month of two Republican backed immigration bills, House Republicans are trying to tackle a more specific issue — migrant labor in agricultural industries — with U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik signing on as one of a number of co-sponsors.

“Congresswoman Stefanik is a co-sponsor of this legislation that creates a new, workable agricultural guestworker program to ensure North Country farmers have access to a reliable workforce,” wrote Stefanik spokesman Tom Flanagin in an email. “North Country farmers have been looking for a stable workforce for years. The current H-2A visa program is not only broken, but it excludes our dairy producers, and must change.”

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has combined two separate bills he introduced last year — one overhauling temporary worker visas and the other establishing an electronic verification system for employers to check the immigration status of workers — and introduced them as a single bill on Wednesday.

The AG and Legal Workforce Act, H.R. 6417, includes a number of revisions from the original two bills and has drawn bipartisan support, although the bill only has one Democrat co-sponsor, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, a member of the moderate to conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

The most significant changes would be introducing H-2C visas to replace the current H-2A visas. According to the summary of the bill provided by Goodlatte on his website, it would make 450,000 visas available for both seasonal and year-round industries, including dairy farms and meat packing. If the cap is reached, it can automatically be increased by up to 10 percent.

Migrant workers already working without authorization in the U.S. can apply for H-2C certifications after briefly leaving the country. All guest workers can get three-year visas, but after those expire will be required to leave the country for up to 60 days before obtaining a new visas. Workers who do not leave will be barred from returning to the US, and 10 percent of workers wages will be put into escrow accounts only accessible from the workers’ home country.

The E-Verify system also in the bill would help employers to quickly check the work status of any potential employees while increasing penalties if employers circumvent the requirements.

According to information provided from Stefanik’s office, the bills have been modified over June and July from the versions introduced last year.

Among the updates are an overlap with the H-2A visa, allowing both programs to co-exist for a year while farmers adjust to the new system, and a provision allowing dairy farmers to start immediately bringing in workers on H-2A visas while the new system is implemented. It also allows the cap on visas to be exceeded beyond the 10 percent level if there is a risk of a labor shortage and includes a mandate for workers to purchase health care.

Flanagin did not answer questions from the Times about the shortage of Democratic support on a supposedly bipartisan bill, or how likely the bill was to actually pass the House.

“This legislation will help our North Country agriculture industry meet their labor needs and continue to bring high quality products to market,” he wrote. “Rep. Stefanik looks forward to working across the aisle to advance this important bill.”


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