Goodlatte offers immigration plan during meat plant visit

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, talks with Steve Baker, the owner of Baker Farms. Max Lee/Daily

MOUNT JACKSON — U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, said Tuesday he would introduce a guest worker bill in the House of Representatives when Congress reconvenes from its recess.

Goodlatte is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration matters.

He said his bill would adapt a seasonal agriculture visa known as the H2A to apply to some yearlong agricultural work, like dairy farming or food processing.

Goodman announced his plans as he concluded a two-day agriculture tour by visiting Baker Farms, a small pig-raising and processing facility in Mount Jackson.

“When I was chairman of the Agriculture Committee in Congress, I always wanted to do something to reform the H2A agriculture guest worker program, which doesn’t work too well for a lot of farmers for a whole host of reasons,” Goodlatte said.

Under the proposed program, Goodlatte said workers would be able to work in the United States for three years. Either before those three years end or at the end of those three years, the workers would be required to return to their homes outside the United States.

Workers in the program would also have some of their wages sent to their home countries, giving them an incentive to return home. The wages for workers in the program would be 15 percent higher than the state minimum wage.

Goodlatte distinguished his proposed program from an amnesty program.

“It’s not an amnesty program because it doesn’t allow [workers] to have permanent status in the United States,” Goodlatte said. “But it does allow them to become legal.”

Goodlatte said he has problems with amnesty programs, citing a 1986 law that gave amnesty to a number of farm workers. Two years after that law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was passed, federal officials noted problems with fraud in the program, according to a 1988 article in the Los Angeles Times.

Goodlatte said that there were also problems in keeping agricultural workers under the program. Many workers that were granted amnesty quit farming altogether, he said, which left an agricultural labor shortage.

“With a green card, you can do whatever you want,” Goodlatte said.

Goodlatte said that his proposed changes are especially important because of President Trump.

“Now, we have a president who is enforcing our immigration laws, both at the border and at the interior of the country,” Goodlatte said. “So a lot of people in agriculture are starting to realize that it’s going to be a lot harder to get people who just come in and show up and work and they pay them under the table.”

The potential legislation Goodlatte proposed could run contrary to President Trump’s promise to “buy American, hire American.”

But Goodlatte said he spoke to Trump about his plans during a meeting on immigration law and believed Trump would support the plan.

“He’s been very outspoken in saying that he knows that farmers need access to workers, because it’s an area where it’s hard to find enough U.S. citizens to fill the job,” Goodlatte said.

After Goodlatte introduced his proposed bills, he went on a tour of the meat processing facility at Baker Farms. According to Steve Baker, the owner of the company, Baker Farms invested in a processing plant due to the high cost of sending pigs to a meat processing facility he didn’t own.

“We had to get to the point of turning a raw commodity into a food product in order to get by,” Baker said.

Baker said that he has not had to rely on immigrant labor at his farm, which employs eight people. But he supported the proposal Goodlatte had described.

“There’s a lot of agriculture business in the valley that does need [immigrant labor],” Baker said. “Because you just can’t find the labor force. And someone’s got to do the work.”