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Durbin Questions Witnesses During Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Immigrant Workers, Agriculture, and Need for Immigration Reform

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today questioned witnesses during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled, “From Farm to Table: Immigrant Workers Get the Job Done.”  The hearing highlighted how immigrant workers are essential to put food on our tables, the need for immigration reform to help American farms and businesses, and the importance of protections and fair wages for both domestic and immigrant workers.

Durbin asked Diana Tellefson Torres, CEO of United Farm Workers (UFW) Foundation, about the issue of wage theft for immigrant agricultural workers. 

“There are many parts of it [Ms. Tellefson Torres’ testimony] that are just heartbreaking to think, in America, this is taking place,” Durbin said.  “Would you address the issue of wage theft? That is [described] in your statement, and it appears that many workers who are nominally being paid so much per hour are actually being paid less because there is a middle man.”

In her testimony before the Committee, Ms. Tellefson Torres noted that, “Workers are often hired by labor contractors, often with the goal of shielding employers from direct wage and workplace violations.  And even these labor contractors often put another layer between themselves and workers… This structure leads to extreme worker vulnerability, as the workers rarely know the name of the company or the full name of the foreman… Some of the workers also did not know how to read or write in Spanish or English, as their first language was an indigenous language from Mexico.  How can a farm worker, who overcomes the fear of retaliation, file a complaint with an enforcement agency, if they do not know the name of their employer?”

Durbin then asked Adam Lytch, Operations Manager at L&M Farms, about how mandatory E-Verify for agricultural workers—without corresponding legalization provisions—would impact the agricultural industry. 

“One of the proposals in the House of Representatives that passed on a partisan basis was to impose E-Verify on agriculture workers—that would check whether they are documented or undocumented.  That legislation also included changes to the H-2A program, reversing a recent Department of Labor regulation setting wages.  The bill did not include a path to legal status for undocumented workers—even though we know they make up at least 40 percent of the agricultural workforce,” Durbin said.  “What would a mandatory E-Verify provision for agricultural workers do to the agriculture industry?”

Mr. Lytch responded that, “E-Verify alone without some reforms to the H-2A program would be devastating… But for the Ag sector overall, it would be pretty devastating to have that based on the percentage that you mentioned, of workers that are undocumented.  Both have to happen together.   There has to be some kind of H-2A reform, greater access to the program, before mandatory E-Verify.”

Under current immigration laws, employers must rely on the H-2A temporary visa program to hire agricultural workers.  Though the H-2A program has seen significant growth in recent years, it far too often fails to adequately protect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers and protect foreign workers from abuse.  The program has also been criticized by growers as overly burdensome, rigid, and expensive.  There are few, if any, options for permanent visas for agricultural workers, as the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) currently provides only 5,000 permanent visas, or “green cards,” annually for lower-skilled occupations. 

Video of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here for TV Stations.

Today’s hearing follows a July 2021 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled, “Immigrant Farmworkers are Essential to Feeding America.”  That hearing examined the essential contributions of immigrant farmworkers to our food supply and highlighted the need for the Senate to take up legislation to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers.  Durbin’s opening statement from that hearing is available here and questions for the witnesses is available here.

As the lead author of the Dream Act and Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Durbin has been a champion for immigration reform for years.  Durbin, along with seven of his Republican and Democratic colleagues, authored a comprehensive immigration reform package that would have addressed many of the challenges our nation faces at the border, in the agricultural sector, and across the country today.  That legislation passed the Senate with bipartisan support in 2013, but did not receive a vote in the Republican-controlled House.