What is the Farm Workforce Modernization Act?

January 31, 2020

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bipartisan bill that could potentially legalize 325,000 unauthorized immigrants. It is the first bill to legalize any unauthorized immigrants supported by Republicans in many years. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) passed the House by a vote of 265 to 165. Those Republicans voting for the bill represent agricultural areas where the need for such labor is in demand. The Senate must now take the bill into consideration.

Reliance on Immigrant Labor

It is no secret that U.S. agriculture has long relied on immigrant labor. Since 2008, however, the demand for agricultural workers has far outstripped the supply. Trump Administration policies have exacerbated the problem, as raids on the agricultural sector over unauthorized immigrants have increased significantly. For example, in August 2019, raids conducted at two Mississippi poultry processing plants resulted in 680 arrests. The poultry plants have since attempted to recruit workers at job fairs, indicating those applying must have two types of identification.

Certified Agricultural Workers

Under the FWMA, the bill provides a method for agricultural workers to obtain Certified Agricultural Worker (CAW) status for 5.5 years, as long as the worker was employed in the agricultural sector for at least six months over the prior two years. CAW status is renewable every six months. The bill allows the worker to renew their CAW status indefinitely, but also permits workers, as well as spouses and children, to seek a green card for permanent resident status.

Seeking a green card means paying a $1,000 fine and undergoing background checks. If the worker has spent at least 10 years in the agricultural field, another four years of work is required before they may pursue a green card. If the worker has less than a decade under their belt, another eight years is needed before green card consideration. Once the green card is obtained, workers are no longer confined to the agricultural sector but may look for a job in any industry.

E-Verification Requirements

The bill mandates that farmers use the E-verify system, no matter if the operation is large or small. It also freezes the minimum wage for one year and permits a minimum wage cap of just 3.25 percent over the next nine years. This component is likely to affect labor organizations’ support of the bill.


Although farmers support the bill, that is not the case with those who want to restrict immigration. These opponents allege the bill resembles one passed in the 1990s, which they claim resulted in widespread fraud and over a million people permitted to reside in the U.S. The bipartisan support in some quarters may not translate into passage in the Senate.

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