Immigrant Workforce Bills can Help Pennsylvania Workforce

The United States has gone through a long stretch of virus-related disruptions. Especially in the spring of 2020, there was serious concern about whether the supply chains for essentials, like food and medical supplies, would hold. The food supply chain experienced extreme stress during the first few months of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It became clear that without farm workers planting and harvesting crops, meatpackers butchering and packaging meat, and laborers loading food onto trucks, the food supply system could easily fail.  Laborers in farm fields, meat processing, packaging, warehouses, and more were deemed essential workers. Health care workers were also understood as being essential workers.

Now that employers are seeking to return to pre-pandemic production levels, they are having a hard time getting enough employees. Many essential worker jobs in health care, food production, and warehousing are immigrants who are unable to qualify for a Green Card or who rely on H-2A visas to work here. A Green Card is a Permanent Resident Card (PRC) issued to immigrants granting them rights, privileges, and benefits for permanently residing in the U.S.

Holders of PRCs are referred to as lawful permanent residents and can live legally in the U.S., but they may not vote. A H-2A visa refers to the H-2A visa program, which helps employers find temporary or seasonal agricultural workers. The H-2A program offers no pathway to U.S. citizenship, and workers must apply for the program every year.

Where Do Undocumented Immigrant Laborers Work?

New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization focused on immigration issues, reports that half of all “Dreamers” work in essential fields.  Dreamers are those who were bought to the U.S. as children by immigrant parents and were raised here, but they do not have proper documentation to be considered legal citizens. For now, Dreamers are protected from deportation only by an administrative order referred to as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.

Many Dreamers nationwide work in the understaffed health care industry.  Dreamers provide valuable skills and much-needed tax revenue to the states where they work. In Pennsylvania, the vast majority of DACA-eligible residents are employed. The farming business is especially reliant on labor from outside the U.S. There are about two million farmworkers in our nation. Most are immigrants, and many are undocumented and live with the constant fear of deportation.

The federal H-2A temporary agricultural workers program helps employers find temporary or seasonal agricultural workers for planting, cultivating, or harvesting work on farms, plantations, ranches, nurseries, ranges, greenhouses, orchards, and the like. Seasonal work is limited to a time of year, and temporary work lasts up to one year. The H-2A visa program requires employers to offer certain wages and provide necessary transportation and housing. Backlogs in processing visa applications are common. The delays risk losses for farmers who, without adequate labor, forego revenues from crops rotting in the fields.

Non-Profit Prepares Immigrants for Entry into the Workforce

The Welcoming Center, a Philadelphia-based non-profit, provides education and training assistance to immigrants for work in the U.S. The organization notes visa bans, low refugee admissions, and anti-immigrant rhetoric have repelled international students and foreign talent. Bringing them back will promote inclusive economic growth and help address the workforce shortages now being faced in Pennsylvania and throughout the country.

Congress Could Help Farmworkers

A bill being considered in Congress could ease the pressure of employee shortages while protecting undocumented workers from legal jeopardy and deportation. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Under the proposed bill, farmworkers could apply for Certified Agriculture Worker (CAW) status which would authorize the qualified worker to work in any industry. The worker could apply to renew CAW status or for lawful permanent residency provided they worked in agriculture for at least 100 days per year. The program would allow CAW workers who travel outside of the United States permission to return there.

Stakeholders, including the United Farm Workers (UFW), UFW Foundation, agribusiness representatives, and Farmworker Justice, were consulted in the process of crafting the bill. It would provide undocumented farmworkers and their family members with a path to legal immigration status and citizenship, revise the H-2A agricultural guestworker program, and require mandatory employment verification.

Who Could Seek CAW Access if the Bill Passes?

If you are an undocumented immigrant worker and do not have criminal convictions on your record, you could apply for CAW status if the following conditions have been met:

  • Worked in the past two years in U.S. agriculture for at least 180 work days. There is some flexibility on this minimum to address those who experienced reduced hours due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Were continuously present in the U.S. for a designated period of time.
  • Pass security and law enforcement background checks.
  • Pay an application fee.

A farmworker’s spouse and children would be eligible for dependent status with the same protections, including the right to work in the U.S. without restriction on the type of work. CAW status and dependent status would last for five and one-half years and would be renewable indefinitely.

The bill includes a provision to convert CAW status to lawful permanent residency. It would require the CAW status worker to perform agricultural work for at least 100 workdays per year for a certain number of years, with the ability to be credited for work in prior years. The workers could be credited for lost workdays due to illness, pregnancy, COVID-19 restrictions, severe weather, and other causes.

Congress Could Help Dreamers

The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 is another bill being considered in Congress which could grant conditional permanent resident status for 10 years to Dreamers who have not been convicted of a crime, provided they:

  • Were younger than 18 years old when they entered the U.S.
  • Graduate from high school or equivalent.
  • Pass security and law enforcement background checks.
  • Pay a reasonable application fee.
  • Register for the Selective Service if required.

The bill would also offer the ability to gain full lawful permanent resident status to Dreamers who meet certain requirements, such as:

  • Earning a degree in higher education.
  • Completing two years of study in a post-secondary technical education program.
  • Completing at least two years of military service.
  • Be employed for at least three years.

Philadelphia Immigration Lawyers at Surin & Griffin, P.C. Represents Clients From Other Countries Working in the U.S.

If you are an undocumented immigrant or an immigrant facing challenges to your status, our Philadelphia immigration lawyers at Surin & Griffin, P.C. can help. We have protected many people from deportation and have helped enable our clients to work productively in the U.S. For an initial consultation, complete our online form or call us at 215-925-4435. Located in Philadelphia, we serve clients throughout the state and nationwide.