Agricultural employers would have 36 months before they would be required to use the E-Verify system under a House bill introduced in mid-June.

Chief sponsor of H.R. 2164, the Legal Workforce Act, is Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He said the bill will open up jobs for the 24 million Americans out of work.

“Seven million people are working in the U.S. illegally,” he said in a June 15 statement. “These jobs should go to legal workers.”

Smith said the bill would preempt state E-Verify laws but respect states’ and localities’ authority to base business license issuance and maintenance on compliance with the federal E-Verify mandate.  

The House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement had a hearing on the legislation June 15 but no representatives of agriculture were asked to testify.

Smith’s bill recognizes agriculture is unique but doesn’t exclude agricultural employers form the mandate, said Cathleen Enright, Washington, D.C.-based vice president of government affairs for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.

“Western Growers supports systems that would validate eligibility of employees, but not without a workable program for agriculture,” Enright said.

Enright also said the bill does not create any agricultural guest worker program, so it fails to provide growers with a way to hire a legal workforce.

The bill has a 36-month phase-in for the E-Verify mandate for agriculture, she said, which is the longest phase-in period for any industry.

The first phase-in — six months after the bill becomes law — is for businesses with over 10,000 employees.

Enright said Smith’s bill may come up for a vote in the House before the August recess.

The bill may prove politically difficult to vote against, Enright said.

“It’s a very attractive campaign issue for folks to use, especially when you’ve got unemployment back up over 9%,” he said.

Voting for the bill would allow politicians to have a nice sound bite, but she said opposing the bill requires longer explanations by politicians.

 “I think people will have a hard time voting against it,” she said.

On the Senate side, Enright said Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., is continuing to explore options for a guest worker program.

“I think all understand in the current environment that any guest worker program that continues a pathway to citizenship has no support,” she said.

Both House and Senate members are looking at guest worker program options, she said.

‘What we do need is a guest worker program that allows us to maintain our experienced workforce and also allows us to hire greater than a million employees every year,” she said. “Those two have to be the basis for securing our support."

Enright said Western Growers believes the current H-2A program cannot be fixed because it is burdensome and can’t meet the industry’s demand for workers.

“We’ve got dozen of examples of how H-2A isn’t working, but on its very face it doesn’t have the capacity to bring in a million people a year,” she said. “Last year 57,000 H-2A visas were issued,” she said. “We need a million people.”