Eastern Idaho's congressman hopes to introduce a bill in the coming weeks to make it easier for farmers to hire immigrant workers.
"It is a bipartisan effort," U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson told the Idaho Falls City Club on Tuesday. "I think we'll have it ready to introduce next week or the week after."
Simpson, a Republican, said he is working with about six lawmakers from both parties on the proposal, including U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who heads the Immigration and Border Security subcommittee. Simpson said he has also been working with farm groups representing various agricultural sectors. He said he thinks it could pass the Democratic-controlled House if it makes it to the floor.
"Nobody's going to look at it and say, 'Hey, it's sliced bread, it's the greatest thing in the world,'" Simpson said. "It's a compromise. It would be different if I wrote it myself, as it would be different if Zoe wrote it by herself. But it's a compromise, and it's a huge step forward."
As Simpson outlined it, the bill would streamline the process of applying for H-2A visas, which farmers use to hire foreign nationals for seasonal agricultural work. Under the current "50 percent rule," which requires farmers to hire domestic laborers for half of the jobs they need to fill, if one of those domestic workers leaves the farmer has to start the application process again. Simpson said this bill would pre-approve farmers for all the positions they need to fill so they can hire a foreigner if that happens.
"It's a simplification of the whole process, and I think it's incredibly important to agriculture in Idaho and across the country," he said.
Simpson said the bill would also freeze the “adverse effect wage rate,” which varies by state and is meant to ensure the wages offered to immigrants don’t undercut American workers, and put limits on increases going forward. The rate went up 6 percent nationally this year. In Idaho, it went from $11.63 an hour in 2018 to $13.48 in 2019, a 16 percent increase.
“A lot of our agricultural producers can’t afford 16 percent increases in wages year after year,” Simpson said.
Simpson said the bill could run into opposition both from more conservative Republicans who might view it as amnesty and from Democrats who would prefer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He said undocumented immigrants who want to get a legal green card would have to pay a fine and commit to working in agriculture for a certain period. If they want citizenship, he said, they would then have to go through the same process as any other applicant.
“To me, this is a good compromise,” he said. “You’re not rewarding illegal immigration, it’s not amnesty, and you’re not doing automatic citizenship.”
Simpson said there are many other immigration-related issues that need to be addressed, but he sees this as a good first step. He said he supported comprehensive immigration reform for years, but has come to believe this will never happen and a piecemeal approach is the only possible one. Among them is addressing the status of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, some of whom were protected from deportation under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“For me, DACA is a simple one to fix,” Simpson said. “How do you deport these kids who were brought here as children and send them back to a country they’ve never known? I don’t think as a humanitarian you can do that. I think you need to give them citizenship and let them stay. This is the only country they’ve ever known.”