Leahy Leads Bipartisan Effort To Help Dairy Workers

MONDAY, April 18 – U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure that dairy farmers in Vermont and across the country can use a visa program long used by other sectors of the agriculture industry to hire foreign workers.  Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is a cosponsor of Leahy’s bill, and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) has supported similar efforts in the House of Representatives.

The H-2A Improvement Act will authorize dairy workers, sheepherders and goat herders to enter the U.S. for an initial period of three years, and gives U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) the authority to approve a worker for an additional three-year period.  After the first three-year period, the worker may petition to become a lawful permanent resident.

“Although milk prices have improved over the past year, dairy farmers still struggle to meet their labor needs,” said Leahy.  “I have heard from Vermont farmers, Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, and the broader dairy industry about the challenges the current situation presents.  The denial of access to lawful, willing agricultural workers places a substantial burden on employers.”

The H-2A visa program allows farmers to hire foreign workers when needed to keep U.S. farms open and producing.  Leahy first introduced the legislation in September 2010.  This year, Republican Senator Michael Enzi of Wyoming is joining Leahy in sponsoring the bill.  It is cosponsored by Sanders, and Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Leahy continued, “As a Senator from a state that prides itself on its dairy products and a long tradition of family farming, it is unacceptable that dairy farmers are put in a position of choosing between their livelihoods and taking risks with a potential employee’s immigration status.  I strongly believe that the vast majority of dairy farmers want to hire a lawful workforce, and our policy should support these goals.” 

“Agricultural operations often require very skilled labor that cannot be found locally. That is exactly why a one size fits all immigration policy for agriculture simply doesn’t work. This change will bring a personalized fit to sheepherders and dairy farmers that is long overdue,” said Enzi.

The dairy industry suffered a setback in 2010 when the U.S. Department of Labor issued rules that continued to exclude the dairy industry from the H-2A agricultural worker visa program.  Sheepherders and goat herders may access the H-2A program under current regulations, but should have the certainty of a change in the statute.  Leahy was critical of the Labor Department’s refusal to provide the dairy industry with access to the H-2A program because of its year-round needs, especially in light of the agency’s decision to grant new access to the H-2A program to the logging industry.

Leahy has long led efforts to include dairy workers in the H-2A visa program.  In 2006 and 2007, he authored and included legislation to fix the H-2A dairy exemption in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bills to alleviate the inequity caused by the Department of Labor’s interpretation of law.  A similar provision was also included in the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2010, which Leahy also cosponsored.  He has also been a leading cosponsor of the long-pending AgJOBS bill, which offers a comprehensive overhaul of the H-2A visa program and which has included Leahy’s provision to fix the dairy industry’s exclusion. 

Leahy chairs the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration policy, and he also is the most senior member of the Agriculture Committee.

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