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Bill passed by House could expand Minnesota’s ag workforce — and protect undocumented workers

The bill expands a temporary work-visa program and also creates a pathway to legal residence for undocumented farm workers.

sweet corn
A 2009 University of Minnesota study estimated that around 20,000 people migrate to Minnesota each summer to process green peas and sweet corn, just two of the many crops Minnesota farms produce.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

The U.S. House voted last week to forge a pathway to lawful permanent residence for migrant farm workers, pushing forward legislation that will likely face an uphill battle in the closely divided Senate.

Lawmakers voted 247-174 for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, originally introduced in 2019, which creates protections for farm workers who have worked in the U.S. illegally. All but one Democrat supported the measure, and 30 Republicans also voted in favor. Minnesota Democratic Reps. Angie Craig, Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum and Dean Phillips voted “yes,” while their Republican counterparts Reps. Jim Hagedorn, Tom Emmer, Michelle Fischbach, and Pete Stauber voted against the bill.

Though President Joe Biden supports a broad overhaul of the U.S. immigration system, House Democrats are favoring smaller, more targeted bills that are more likely to gain bipartisan support. Still, Biden says he supports the bill. He said in a statement that he “support[s] the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 and celebrate[s] its passage.”

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would give immigrants who have worked in agriculture for at least 180 days over the past two years the ability to apply for “Certified Agricultural Worker” status, which can be renewed in five-year or six-month increments if they continue in agriculture for at least 100 days per year. Immigrant farm workers could also have options for permanent legal status, depending on how long they can verify they’ve worked on farms in the U.S.

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The bill would also streamline the application process for the H-2A temporary visa program for seasonal agricultural workers. In Minnesota, H-2A visa holders must be paid $14.72 an hour under the Adverse Effect Wage Rate set by the federal government. In order to hire workers with an H-2A visa, employers must hire any qualified, eligible  U.S. worker who applies to the same position. If, for example, a Minnesota farm exhausts its options of eligible employees in its communities, it can then turn to workers with H-2A visas.

“For me, it’s a recognition of the importance of the role undocumented workers in our states play in agriculture,” said Thom Petersen, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Petersen, who has been following the bill’s progress through Congress, believes its passage will have a positive impact on Minnesota’s agriculture industry as a whole.

Much of Minnesota’s farmland lies in the state’s 1st and 7th districts, which are represented by Reps. Hagedorn and Fischbach, respectively. Fischbach also serves on the House Agriculture Committee. Both representatives voted “no” to this bill.

Rep. Michelle Fischbach
Rep. Michelle Fischbach
“A viable farm workforce is critical in a district like mine, which is home to more than 30,000 farms,” Rep. Fischbach said in a statement. “I appreciate the efforts of my colleagues to negotiate in good faith, but this bill is not without its flaws. It does not address the already-high costs of the H-2A program, nor does it offer solutions for making the program more economical for producers.”

Fischbach said in a statement that her suggested solutions to the bill were rejected, but that she hopes reasonable changes will be made when the Senate takes up the bill in the coming weeks.

Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, also had some concerns about the bill in its current state.

“We need to make sure it works for all of agriculture,” Paap said. “The H-2A program is a seasonal type [program] so the year-round farmers don’t really have access to the H-2A visa… That’s what makes this so hard. We haven’t really done much with immigration since 1986. It’s so important we get this right.”

Sharon Tomiko Santos, a member of the Washington House of Representatives and member and former co-chair of the National Coalition for State Legislatures (NCSL) Task Force on Immigration and the States, said that the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would bring relief not only to immigrant workers, but to the farmers themselves.

“Finally, it is a way to ensure that by having a legal stream of workers you can depress the potential for bad actors to exploit workers,” Tomiko Santos said. “Good farmers want workers and they want them legally. I think that’s a big win.”

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There isn’t much data on Minnesota’s migrant and seasonal workers, a population that can be difficult to track. A 2009 University of Minnesota study estimated that around 20,000 people migrate to Minnesota each summer to process green peas and sweet corn, just two of the many crops Minnesota farms produce. According to a recent report by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, just under 7% of agriculture workers in 2019 were foreign born. The animal production subsector, which includes dairy farms, is staffed by over 9% foreign-born workers, while foreign-born people make up nearly 32% of the forestry workforce.

The Pew Research center estimates that in 2017, the most recent year for available data, around 85,000 unauthorized immigrants lived in Minnesota.

Petersen says he hopes the bill helps encourage more workers to come to Minnesota — especially after the last year of the pandemic, it has been difficult to find enough people to staff farms and meatpacking plants.

“In the last year, it’s been really tough,” Petersen said. “We are down workers across processing plants, but our farm workers as well… Workers wouldn’t go to work if they didn’t feel safe.”

Support at the state level

On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz amplified the need to protect immigrant farmworkers by issuing an executive order establishing the Governor’s Committee on the Safety, Health, and Wellbeing of Agricultural and Food Processing Workers.

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Gov. Tim Walz
Walz wrote in the order that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and in some cases exacerbated the challenges already faced by agriculture and food processing workers. Walz honed in on the immigrant workforce, writing “these [immigrant] workers’ safety, health, and wellbeing is essential not only to the workers themselves, but also their families and communities.”

“I can’t say enough about what the last year has meant, highlighting the importance of our workers and our food system,” Petersen said. As a state, he said, agriculture leaders are glad for the new statewide coordinated effort. “This will bring better communication to the workers so they can be successful and stay healthy.”

The executive order necessitates that the new committee develop a system for communication among state agencies, community organizations, advocacy groups, and agricultural and food processing employers and workers.

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Housing assistance, one element of migrant worker support Petersen favors, is another aspect of Walz’s order. The new wellbeing committee will design a strategy to protect the safety and health of agricultural workers, with a focus on housing, transportation and workplaces.

“It’s very clear immigrant farm workers play a vital role in feeding all Americans,” Paap said. “At some point we have to decide, do we want to import our labor or import our food? We’ve gotta have a system that will continue to allow us to make food within our borders.”