No Vote on Farmworker Bill as Testimony Goes Long

A controversial proposal to allow the state to take over the processing of federal H-2A visas stalled in committee Thursday as time ran out on a list of witnesses waiting to testify in favor of the measure.  Lawmakers did not vote on a proposed farmworker bill Thursday, after several hours of testimony against the bill left them short of time to hear all the arguments in favor.

State Rep. Marsha Looper’s HB 1325, which would create a state system to expedite the processing of federal H-2A visa applications for temporary agricultural workers, will be brought back to committee for limited testimony and a vote sometime in coming weeks. 

Immigration attorneys, representatives from advocacy groups and concerned citizens showed up in force to testify against the proposal, which has the support of the state departments of Agriculture and Labor and Employment as well as the Farm Bureau and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

Attorney Joy Athanasiou attacked the bill’s overall legality as well as that of specific provisions. HB 1325 calls for requesting a waiver from the federal government to allow the state to handle some parts of the processing of H-2A applications. Athanasiou pointed out that the language in federal immigration statutes would have to be changed by Congress in order for a waiver to be possible.

“Supporters of this bill would like to see some kind of help on the ground for farmers – helping them through the H-2A process and helping them get workers,” Athanasiou said. “I think there are a lot of ways that could be accomplished without doing it legislatively. … If there was some funding available the state Department of Labor and Employment could take a role training farmers going through this process.”

But Looper insisted the Nonimmigrant Agricultural Seasonal Worker Pilot Program is viable without the waiver, if that proves impossible to obtain. The bill calls for state agents to be involved in the process both here and in Mexico. Agents will “baby sit” farmers’ H-2A applications and pair them with workers, speeding up the turnaround time for Colorado’s labor-starved growers, Looper said. 

“We have a $16 billion agricultural economy at stake; we have 37,000 farmers in this state,” Looper said. “We are talking about the food supply for America, keeping those food prices down and having a dependable and reliable food source.”

One of the most controversial provisions in the bill states that employers will withhold up to 20 percent of a worker’s wages, which will only be returned once he has checked in back in Mexico. Looper said the measure is necessary to ensure workers return to their home country after their 10-month visa has expired.

“The people of Colorado want some accountability,” Looper said. “They want some oversight. … that’s why the (20 percent) provision is in the bill.”

But Jenifer Rodriguez, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Division of Colorado Legal Services, said most H-2A workers gladly return to Mexico because they want to be able to legally come back the next year.

“The few that stay in the country will do so no matter what the cost is,” Rodriguez said. “So I don’t think the withholding of wages addresses that point.”

Cathryn Hazouri, executive director of the ACLU of Colorado, told lawmakers on the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee that the labor shortage in Colorado was due in large part to the laws passed during the 2006 special session. These laws, which resulted in a package of immigration legislation regarded as the toughest in the nation, have been blamed for driving fearful immigrant workers from the state.

“If that is the problem with our lack of workers, perhaps the answer is to revisit the 2006 special session and take out the disincentives for workers and organizations to come to Colorado,” Hazouri said. 

Looper responded that the state’s shortage of agricultural workers was a problem long before the special session.

“The state has always struggled to find workers for our farms,” she said. “This bill is trying to address that problem with some reasonable steps.”

Finally, after nearly four hours, the floor was turned over to the proponents of the bill. First up was Tom Lipetzky of the state Department of Agriculture. His agency supports the legislation, Lipetzky said, as the state has a responsibility to take a more active role in support of the agricultural industry.

Tom Looft, of the state Department of Labor and Employment, also spoke in favor of the bill, insisting it could be implemented by his agency as written.

“There are a lot of issues facing agricultural employers and growers in Colorado,” Looft said. “We want to be part of the solution. Whether this bill is the complete solution, we don’t know, but we certainly want to be involved.”