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Lawmakers see a bipartisan immigration fix for farm workers. Does the White House?

The White House is dismissing a fresh effort from a bipartisan group of House lawmakers to address the status of undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. agriculture industry.

Lawmakers led by California Democrat Zoe Lofgren and Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart — two veterans of immigration overhaul efforts — plan to introduce a bill this week that would provide a pathway to legal status for those farm workers, their spouses and minor children, congressional sources told McClatchy.

Diaz-Balart, who confirmed his involvement, said three other GOP lawmakers have been involved in quiet negotiations over the past several months and that roughly 100 farm labor groups were supporting the effort and nearly 20 House Republicans had expressed interest in signing on as co-sponsors.

Last week, Theo Wold, a special assistant to President Donald Trump for domestic policy, came to Capitol Hill to meet with members and senior aides involved in negotiations.

Wold is an ally of Jared Kushner, a senior adviser and son-in-law to Trump who has tried to be a bipartisan dealmaker on immigration overhaul legislation in the past.

Congressional sources familiar with the meeting said they saw Wold’s participation as a positive sign there could be some openness to support for the bill within the White House — or at least no active effort to try and thwart it.

A senior administration official confirmed Wold’s attendance but said the White House is unlikely to back the legislation.

That would be a blow to the Republican lawmakers who had been quietly working with Democrats for months on this measure.

According to a summary of the bill obtained by McClatchy, the so-called Farm Workforce Modernization Act would provide a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants who have already been working in the farm and agriculture industry for at least two years and plan to continue in this sector.

It would make changes to the H2-A visa program, which farmers use to hire foreign nationals for seasonal agriculture work, to make it easier for employers to fill crucial workforce gaps while providing more protections for the workers themselves.

And as a sweetener for immigration hardliners, the measure would make E-Verify — the web-based system that allows businesses to confirm whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States — mandatory for the agriculture sector.

There is no indication that the White House’s lack of enthusiasm for the bill will prevent lawmakers from going forward with introduction as planned. House Democrats control the chamber and have expressed no qualms in the past about moving measures the administration would likely veto.

Lofgren is also the chairwoman of the relevant House Judiciary subcommittee that would consider the bill as the first step in the legislative process.

If 20 Republicans are willing to put their names on the effort, it could show the reach of interest from the GOP side of the aisle to address a very specific portion of the immigrant workforce that is crucial to many of their districts’ economies.

In addition to Diaz-Balart’s participation in negotiations, another Republican at the table has been Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington, according to two congressional sources.

“A group of us have been trying to figure out if we can, despite all the noise, reach an agreement on an issue that is, frankly, urgent,” Diaz-Balart told McClatchy.

Kate Irby contributed to this report.

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.
Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.
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