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WASHINGTON -- Legislation that would require employers to use E-Verify to check worker’s legal status passed the House Judiciary Committee Sept. 21 without much relief for agricultural producers.

The Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 2885) passed the committee by a 22-to-13 vote without any amendments that would have carved out agricultural producers from the measure. At this time, the measure is not scheduled for House floor action.

"The Legal Workforce Act could open up millions of jobs for unemployed Americans by requiring employers to use E-Verify," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the bill’s sponsor.“It makes no sense to rely on the paper-based, error-prone I-9 system when a successful, web-based program is available."

The bill would phase-in E-Verify, which checks a worker’s Social Security number against records at the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security, and employees performing "agricultural labor or services” would be subject to an E-Verify check within 36 months of the date of enactment.

But the committee failed to consider an amendment by Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) that offered a fix to the H-2A program and help producers provide a stable workforce. Earlier this month, the California congressman introduced the Legal Agricultural Workforce Act (H.R. 2895) that would scrap the bureaucratic structure of the H-2A program and allow workers to be admitted to the U.S. for up to 10 months in any 12-month period.

"Without the Lungren amendment the bill in its current form could decimate the fresh produce industry if passed by Congress," Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers Association, wrote in a Sept. 21 email to members.

"Chairman Smith’s guest worker bill will not solve our labor problem,” Mr. Nassif said.“He is well aware that his bill does not resolve the needs of agriculture. We have communicated this to him many times over the past year. If this bill cannot provide us with a legal, stable work force, we must strenuously oppose it."

Cathy Enright, vice president of federal government affairs for WGA, said that the latest committee action prompted the group to change its stance and oppose E-Verify legislation if there were no agricultural worker solution attached.

The three-year exemption is “window dressing” as employers will still have to respond to other government agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Homeland Security, that can kick up legal trouble for employers who hire unauthorized workers, she said.

WGA plans to broaden its reach and work with dairy and others in advocating for a fair ag worker fix to any legislation that mandates E-Verify.

One thing is certain, Ms. Enright said: If Congress passes a stand-alone E-Verify bill, the fresh produce industry will be the first to feel its affects.

"We will be devastated first because we’re in perishables,” Ms. Enright warned.