The plight of undocumented farmworkers has long troubled Washington Republican Dan Newhouse.

The representative from the 4th Congressional District is a third-generation grower in the Lower Yakima Valley. His family’s acreage produces hops, grapes and tree fruit — crops requiring lots of laborers, some of whom have likely lacked legal status.

Rep. Dan Newhouse (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
Rep. Dan Newhouse (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

“We don’t knowingly hire anyone who is illegal. It’s a difficult spot for the businesses. But on the human side, it’s a really difficult spot for the people we depend on if they can’t even drive the road without fear of maybe being deported,” said Newhouse, who called this “a really important issue we need to face in this country.”

For years, sweeping immigration reform has failed to make headway in Congress. Meanwhile, Newhouse has worked on legislation to offer undocumented farmworkers a pathway to legal residence. Last Thursday, for the second time in less than three years, the House of Representatives passed the bill.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act couples immigration reform for one slice of the undocumented population — an estimated more than 1 million people who labor in agriculture — with a change to the H-2A visa program for temporary workers from other countries. As part of the legislative package, farmers also, over time, would be required to use an internet-based system known as E-Verify to screen out people not  legally allowed to work in the U.S.

The bill now heads to an uncertain fate in the U.S. Senate, with its 50-50 party split and tense relations — in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol led by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

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In the weeks ahead, the Senate is expected to consider an overhaul of immigration policies for a broader swath of the nation’s undocumented population, estimated to number more than 10 million. Newhouse is skeptical such legislation, though a priority of the Biden administration, can make it through Congress and hopes that the House farm labor bill he helped craft will not get set aside by the Senate.

He is encouraged that Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a Democrat, and Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, a Republican, released a statement praising House passage of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, and said they would introduce companion legislation in the Senate.

“Immigration issues are emotional. They are among the hardest issues we face,” Newhouse said in an interview Friday after the vote as he prepared to fly to Washington state for the weekend. “But if we can accomplish a piece of it, I think we have a better chance of addressing other aspects of our immigration law that desperately need fixing, too … our strategy is to take smaller bites.”

Wary Republicans

Newhouse was first elected to Congress in 2014. This year, he drew national attention as one of 10 House Republicans (including Jaime Herrera Beutler, who represents Washington’s 3rd District) voting to impeach Trump for his role in encouraging the insurrectionists. He bucked many in his own party in what he called a “pivotal and solemn moment for our country.”

On the farm labor legislation, he has sought to work in a bipartisan fashion. The House bill, which passed on a 274-174 vote, resulted from Newhouse teaming with Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, and meeting with farm and farmworker representatives to come up with a compromise bill.

“We were very pragmatic, and didn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” said Erik Nicholson, a former national vice president of the United Farm Workers from Central Washington who participated in negotiations over the bill.

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Many farm organizations rallied to support the bill. Those withholding their backing include Wafla, a Washington-based group that helps recruit workers from outside the U.S. to labor in the Northwest under temporary H-2A visas. Wafla is concerned that the bill would “dramatically expand litigation,” according to executive director Dan Fazion. And the Farm Bureau believes the bill “falls short” of addressing agriculture’s “workforce crisis,” according to a statement from Allison Crittenden, the bureau’s director of congressional relations.

In Congress, Newhouse’s biggest challenge has been to win over Republicans. In December 2019, the bill passed with strong Democratic support but only 34 votes from his own party, then failed to go anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.  

This year, the legislation comes under consideration amid a new migrant surge from Central America, including a big increase in unaccompanied minors, with many looking to apply for asylum.

 Newhouse has pitched his bill as a way to help stem illegal immigration by reducing  the incentives for undocumented farmworkers to come, since they would have a much harder time finding agriculture work as E-Verify is phased in. But many Republican colleagues remain wary of the bill, with some attacking it as amnesty, and only 30 voting in favor of it last Thursday, four fewer than two years ago.

Newhouse acknowledges that the situation at the southern border has helped stir some Republican opposition. Bipartisan bills also appear to be a tougher sell amid the hard feelings that remain between the parties in the aftermath of tumultuous events of January.

“I’m not naive enough to say that there’s no residual feelings there. There could well be. So actually the [Republican] numbers we got, I feel pretty good,” Newhouse said.

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“Not perfect”

Newhouse acknowledges the “bill is not perfect,” and says he hopes improvements can be made in the Senate.

Under the House bill, undocumented farmworkers could earn legal status through continued employment in the industry, and that could extend to their spouses and minor children.

The provisions include:

⚬ Workers who can show at least 180 days of agricultural employment over the last two years could apply for five-year renewable agricultural visas.

⚬ If workers can show 10 years of employment in agriculture, they could work another four years, then apply for legal resident status, and would be able to seek a job in any type of work they choose. If they show less than 10 years of work in agriculture, they must work an additional eight years in agriculture to apply for legal residence.

⚬ Foreign workers who do seasonal farm work under H-2A visas for 10 years could then apply for green cards for legal residence. Currently, more than 20,000 of these workers are employed in Washington agriculture each year.

⚬ A streamlining of the application processes that farmers undertake to bring in foreign workers under H-2A temporary work permits, and an expansion of those permits to grant some three-year permits for year-round work in dairy and other agricultural industries.

⚬ More financial assistance to farmers who must provide housing for H-2A workers.