Simpson screenshot farm workers

Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson speaks in the U.S. House on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, on farm workforce legislation; the bill passed with bipartisan support.

Major immigration legislation dealing with the nation’s farm workforce that Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson has championed passed the House late Wednesday on a bipartisan, 260-165 vote.

“We’re here today addressing agriculture’s No. 1 issue, their No. 1 issue, and that’s their labor force,” Simpson told the House in a fiery floor speech. “Agriculture is the backbone of Idaho’s economy, and without this bill, how can we pretend to say that we care about rural America?”

The bill was spearheaded by a bipartisan group of a half-dozen House members, headed by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif; Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.; and Simpson. It was backed by more than 300 agriculture groups, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups. Idaho’s other House member, 1st District Rep. Russ Fulcher, voted in favor of the bill, dubbed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.

Simpson said critics who decried the bill as “amnesty and indentured servitude” were off the mark.

“Let me tell you what this bill does,” he told the House. “It legalizes the current workforce, as long as you get right with the law and have a clean criminal record,” and can demonstrate specified work experience. “If you want to access further legal status, you work four to eight years in agriculture, then pay a fine and get in line while you continue to work in agriculture. That doesn’t sound like amnesty to me.”

The bill also requires use of the “e-verify” system to verify agricultural workers’ legal status; streamlines the H2A visa program for all agricultural workers, including expanding it to cover year-round workers as sought by Idaho’s dairy industry; includes measures designed to stabilize wages; and enacts national security checks and criminal grounds of inadmissibility.

Simpson said in a news release, “This legislation provides significant discretion to Homeland Security to deny status to any applicant if there is reason to believe the applicant is dangerous or otherwise undeserving.” He said the bill “will ensure agriculture has a legal source of workers and discourages future illegal immigration,” adding, “President Trump called for merit- and employment-based immigration since his election — this bill does exactly that.”

Bipartisan efforts already are underway on similar legislation in the Senate.

Simpson noted that the House passage came on the same day that support swelled in Washington for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Idaho Gov. Brad Little is among those who have been speaking out strongly in favor of the trade agreement.

“Idaho farmers must have two things to continue to lead the nation in agriculture, a legal workforce and free trade,” Simpson said in his release. “This week we made huge strides on both, and I’m proud to be part of substantial solutions to these issues and to represent Idaho agriculture.”