SB 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act was introduced this week as the first major proposed overhaul of the immigration policy in two decades. The 800 plus pages of legislation addresses border security and availability of foreign labor, including agriculture workers.
For the agriculture sector, the bill would create a new "blue card" program for experienced farm workers and a new version of the current agricultural worker-visa program. Additionally, two work options would be established -- a portable, at-will employment-based visa and a contract-based visa program. Two "W" visas would be established and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would have a prominent role in creating the rules and regulations of the agriculture work programs. The new program, administered by the USDA, would provide multi-year contracts, which is a long-standing provision of today's H-2A sheepherder program.
The American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) notes a section is included that specifies special procedures applying to sheepherding, open-range livestock and animal shearing. Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) was key in establishing the language recognizing the provisions that have been a long-standing practice of the current H-2A visa by agriculture such as the sheep industry. Language requires the secretary of agriculture to adopt procedures relating to housing, pay and visa applications for special procedure industries.
The Agricultural Workers Coalition, a sponsor of the agriculture section, characterizes the special procedures section as transferring today's H-2A procedures, which are used by a number of industries, into the new programs and codified.
The H-2A program would sunset one year after the new visa program is enacted. Therefore, ASI believes it is critical that codification of the key provisions of the H-2A sheepherder program, including wage, housing, multi-year contract and job description, are accomplished.
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is conducting hearings on the immigration bill.
The bill was offered by the so-called "Group of Eight" senators, including Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), John McCain (Ariz.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Richard Durbin (Ill.), Robert Menendez (N.J.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.). In addition, Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) were heavily involved in drafting the farm worker provisions.