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For the sake of American farmers and workers, pass this bipartisan immigration bill

Undocumented immigrants who work in America’s fields deserve to be legalized, and farmers desperately need a more stable work force.

Migrant farm workers harvest celery on a farm near Fillmore, California.
Migrant farm workers harvest celery on a farm near Fillmore, California.

For most of this year, a group of Democrats and Republicans have worked closely with the agriculture industry on an immigration bill in the U.S. House.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is a sliver of immigration legislation meant to help farmers and migrant workers who pick our fruits and vegetables. These workers also play a huge role in bringing pork, beef and chicken to our tables.

Twenty Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of downstate Taylorville, signed on to the bill as co-sponsors but more should support it when it comes to a vote.

Farmers in red and blue states need this legislation. America needs it.

We like to pretend food magically appears in grocery stores. We take for granted the tough work that goes into it. It all starts on the farms. Three million migrant and seasonal farm workers, half of whom are undocumented, have a critical role.

These undocumented immigrants who work in America’s fields for years deserve to be legalized. They earn it. And this bill would provide a path for it.

This would stabilize the work force for farmers, something they desperately need. In a 2019 survey of nearly 1,100 farmers, 56 percent told the California Farm Bureau Federation they’d been unable to hire all the workers they needed for production of their main crop at least once in the last five years.

Under this bill, migrants who can prove they have worked extensively in agriculture would be eligible for five-year renewable visas. To renew them, migrants would have to keep working in agriculture for at least 100 days each year. Spouses and children also could receive legal protection to remain in the U.S.

Those who work on farms long-term, a decade to 14 years, could eventually become legal permanent residents.

Lawmakers received input from industry groups, including farm labor groups, to produce a bill that is full of compromises. For instance, it requires that E-Verify be used on farms, an important provision to conservatives. The E-Verify program is a government process used to confirm the legality of workers.

Farmers often complain about the bureaucracy behind a guest worker program known as H-2A, and the bill includes a more streamlined process for those hires.

This would help J.R. Kelly Co. of downstate Collinsville, the largest supplier of horseradish roots in the U.S.

“They rely on H-2A workers,” Ashley Phelps, spokeswoman for Congressman Davis, said in an email. “This bill simplifies H-2A by requiring only one filing, instead of three and modernizes the program.”

Hundreds of industry groups support the bill, but the Illinois Farm Bureau isn’t one of them.

The Bloomington-based group has been calling for immigration reform in agriculture for most of the past decade, Adam Nielsen, director of national legislation and policy development, said in an email. “But we can’t embrace this bill as it’s currently written,” he added.

For one, proposed wage rates are too high, Nielsen said. “We would prefer a more market based wage,” he wrote.

But that’s a non-starter for Democrats, and for good reason. For some employers, and some Republicans, a market-based wage is code for getting rid of a minimum wage. That would lead to workers being exploited.

Already, rogue farmers steal wages from workers in agriculture. My father was a victim of it decades ago, and I still can’t forget or forgive it. Labor groups say it still goes on.

This bill would help to prevent exploitation.

It means workers “will be able to speak at their workplaces to challenge illegal working conditions,” Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice in Washington D.C., told me. “They will also feel less intimidated about going to a lawyer or government agency to seek enforcement of minimum wage or work conditions.”

Farmers, workers, and all who eat the food they produce, would win here, but only if more lawmakers and the president do the right thing and get behind the bill.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.